US governors seek more federal aid: Is anyone listening?

The mood at this year's annual meeting of the National Governors' Association (NGA) is one of frustration, perhaps more so than ever before. The dominant voices are calling for the clock to be turned back: for more federal funds for the states for all sorts of services, most particularly education.

But no one of any real importance is listening. Certainly not the Reagan administration, whose vice-president dropped by here simply to make the point that the White House isn't giving an inch in its adamant opposition to throwing federal money at state problems.

Even the Democrats in Congress are giving the governors and the states little hope. Some may talk of providing federal help. But these members of Congress have already proved, particularly since 1980, that they assess the mood of the country and of their constituents pretty much the way the Republicans are reading it: It is time to cut back on federal spending, not increase it.

The cry of frustration comes mainly from the 34 Democratic governors. And for the most part, even Republican governors, beset by rising costs of governing, are looking for more federal largess as well. So the talk here is of the need for Washington to raise taxes, cut back military spending if at all possible, and - although this gets a more modulated emphasis - reduce some outlays for social programs.

But this message is really aimed at tomorrow, not today - toward the possibility of a new president and a new Congress somehow bringing back the old days when the flow of funds from Washington to the states was ever-increasing.

Thus, the governors here - especially the Democrats - are talking to the Democratic presidential candidates: former Vice-President Walter F. Mondale, Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew, Sen. Alan Cranston of California, and Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado.

Most of these candidates indicate they may well bring relief to the Democratic governors if they are successful in their campaigns for the presidency.

But only Messrs. Mondale, Hollings, Askew, and Hart dropped by here to tell the governors so. Senators Glenn and Cranston, both major contenders, did not.

But Mr. Reagan didn't come either. There was a time when presidents regularly peddled their wares at NGA conferences, particularly with a campaign in the offing. But not this year. Reagan sent Mr. Bush. And Bush said his piece well. His pitch was mainly: stick with the Reagan approach to the economy. The speech was pro forma.

But there is frustration here, too, on the part of the Reagan administration. This was evident in what Bush didn't mention in his speech: He said nothing about Reagan's New Federalism, which the President and his people have previously been pushing hard in the years since he took office.

Initially, Reagan advocated a substantial shift of programs from the federal to the state and local levels. Initially, the governors and local officials sounded rather receptive to the idea, and he made a little progress in this direction. But when state and local officials saw that they would have to raise revenue to pay for newly acquired programs, they began to resist the concept.

So Reagan's New Federalism has faded away, just as an earlier form of the program did when President Nixon promoted the idea back in the late 1960s. Mr. Nixon also met with resistance from governors and mayors.

At the last two NGA conferences, the President's top liaison with the governors - Richard S. Williamson - was a center of conversation and consultation as he sought to promote New Federalism. But now Mr. Williamson is the United States representative to the Vienna office of the United Nations and deputy US representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

And - it almost seems amusing - the Reagan people aren't mourning the passing of their ambitious plan to reshape the nation's governments. They seem to have forgotten that this was a major plank in Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign.

Instead, they simply talk about how well the economic recovery seems to be going - and try to convince anyone who will listen that the President isn't escalating US military involvement in Central America.

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