TO hear the nation's governors tell it, the states are the ideal laboratories for experimental reforms in everything from welfare to education to job training. And intrusive regulations from Congress, which rarely sends along money to implement its mandates, hold the states back.
"Every time state and local governments get creative, they have to stand in line and petition Congress and the executive branch for permission to solve the problem," said Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson (R). "It's a silly system.... If Congress can't send cash, then [it should] at least send permission."
That theme emerged often, usually to shared laughter, at the three-day 84th annual meeting of the National Governors' Association (NGA) here, which ended Aug. 4.
As C-Span television cameras operated nonstop and New Jersey state troopers kept a tight security watch at every hallway corner, more than 40 of the nation's governors swapped stories about programs that work in their own states and listened to a variety of top federal and business experts.
The need for change was a steady message. "We're saying the old approaches don't work," said New Jersey Gov. James Florio (D), the host.
"There's got to be a lot more experimentation to see what does work," said Ohio Gov. George Voinovich (R).
Education reform, and how it can strengthen the United States' competitive position, was at the top of the NGA agenda. Much discussion focused on how states are trying to meet the six ambitious goals for the year 2000 that the governors and President Bush embraced in 1990. These include marking a 90 percent improvement in high school graduation rates in the '90s and making every child school-ready through better preschool, health, and social-service programs.
Outgoing NGA chairman John Ashcroft (R), governor of Missouri, said states are struggling to alter structures that reinforce the status quo, but added that "a new education system is emerging." Job training pushed
New training and apprenticeship programs drew strong endorsements from both US Education Secretary Lamar Alexander and US Assistant Labor Secretary Roberts Jones. Many who drop out of school to take a job see the work as a step up. "It's tragic that they often don't realize that's the end of it," said Mr. Jones, referring both to skills-building and schooling received. Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R), noting that three-fourths of those who will be working in the year 2000 are already employed, also str esses the need for a swift upgrading of education and training beyond high school.
States want to shake federal regulation. South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson (R) said the 24 programs in his state labor department rate such a small amount of federal money that "we don't do a really good job with any of them." He wouldrather do 15 programs well, he said, and have the authority to tailor them to suit the needs of his state.
One area where states have been launching a wide variety of experiments with some success is in welfare reform. The 1988 Family Support Act obliges states to have education and training or job requirements in their laws. Responsibility urged
Beyond that, many states are also trying to encourage what they see as responsible behavior by adding incentives for the children's health care and school attendance and for mothers getting married. New Jersey's new law, signed by Governor Florio in January but given the necessary waiver from Congress only a few weeks ago, allows welfare mothers to keep some of their benefits if they take jobs and to marry without losing benefits. Yet no additional benefits are allowed for a child born to a mother alread y on welfare.
Dr. Judith Gueron, president of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, a nonprofit group that evaluates social programs dealing with job issues, told the governors that there is "overwhelming evidence" that work programs for single mothers on welfare are "successful."
"We're going to take care of the children and the people who can't take care of themselves, but ... we need to emphasize a sense of individual and family responsibility that I think we've kind of lost in this society," said Governor Mickelson. Single-teen births high
He notes that one of every 10 births in his state now is to a single-teen parent, and he said 40 percent of all births in South Dakota are paid for by public monies in social programs.
Maine Gov. John McKernan Jr. (R), chairman of the NGA human-resources committee, said the average state spends about 25 percent of its budget on Medicaid and welfare payments and that the costs are growing by 15 to 20 percent each year. The lack of adequate state money has kept Aspire, Maine's four-year-old-program of education and training for welfare recipients, from expanding to include all those who qualify, he said.
Then, too, he said, wages are often so low that there is little incentive for those on welfare to get off the system.
At its closing plenary session, the NGA urged Congress to maintain a strong National Guard and to give states more leeway in regulating contaminants in drinking water. The association also called for a national study to look at the extent of Medicaid abuse by older Americans who use estate planning to shield certain assets.