US governors' conference amasses broad list of bipartisan proposals

For three solid days - interspersed by ample samples of Southern cooking and Tennessee country music - the nation's governors have swapped ideas on state initiatives in every field, from education to economic development.

They have praised one another's leadership capabilities. And they have passed a hefty body of broad, bipartisan resolutions. These call on the states and Washington to follow largely uncontroversial paths to a stronger economy offering more jobs, increased opportunity for US business in world trade, a safer environment, and more affordable health care.

The only thing missing at this annual meeting of the National Governors' Association (NGA) - carefully sandwiched in, as it was, between the two political conventions - was talk about the presidential election. ''It's amazing to me - it hasn't even come up over coffee,'' says Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich (D). He adds that native son Walter Mondale is running well ahead in Minnesota polls.

If asked, of course, all governors readily chat about politics. Most from both parties here say Geraldine Ferraro's vice-presidential candidacy makes the race more interesting, but Republicans tend to insist any pluses offered by the novelty will expire long before the election.

Democrats argue the plus will persist. Oklahoma Gov. George Nigh insists Ms. Ferraro's candidacy ''says more about the rights of women than all the speeches we can make about the Equal Rights Amendment.'' Yet he admits Mr. Mondale faces an uphill battle.

There has been little railing against Washington during this conference. The sharpest criticism has been focused on the deficit and Washington's lack of speed, as the governors see it, in finding solutions.

Some governors, such as Idaho's John V. Evans (D), insist their states are suffering more than neighboring states from the high interest rates. Governor Evans says Idaho's lumber industry is at a 13-year high in inventories, because of both high interest rates and stepped-up import competition from Canada. Idaho's other basic industries - agriculture and silver mining - are similarly sensitive to high interest rates, and the combination has forced the state budget into a deficit situation, while nearby Utah, with more defense contracts and energy resources, has a $65 million surplus.

Though Evans pleaded his case for some protectionist help before US Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, one of the guest speakers here, the secretary repeated the administration's preference for free trade over any artificial restraints.

In general the NGA has long resisted any efforts by individual governors to move to a more protectionist policy. Such moves are rare and easily defeated, insists Washington Gov. John Spellman (R), chairman of the NGA's International Trade Committee. Indeed, the governors went on record at this particular meeting in support of fewer restrictions on both agriculture exports and high technology export licensing.

Many of the NGA resolutions on employment, the chief focus of this conference , zeroed in on the need for closer cooperation between government and industry to minimize the effect on dislocated workers of changes in the economy and to make training and jobs more widely available. Janet Norwood, commissioner of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, stressed in her remarks here that unemployment statistics do not accurately measure economic hardship since many with jobs are paid low wages.

For the first time, the governors have endorsed the principle of pay equity for men and women public employees in comparable jobs. The state of Washington last year was ordered in a court ruling to pay $1 billion in back pay to its female employees. And in Minnesota, where a study found large discrepencies in pay, the state has set aside $22 million to raise the wage rates of women workers.

One trend clearly observable at this conference: the increasing tendency of states to take the lead on a number of issues. Instead of serving as federal laboratories, many are ''charting their own destiny'' and ''leading the way through their own creativity,'' observes Lee Verstandig, President Reagan's assistant for intergovernmental affairs.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.