GOVERNORS of the United States often find common ground despite divergent political views, says Gov. Howard Dean, the Democratic chief executive of Vermont and incoming chairman of the National Governors' Association.
When governors discuss common problems, Mr. Dean says, partisanship usually takes a back seat - even on issues that have become highly divisive in Washington. ``I truly believe Carroll Campbell and I could come to a health-care compromise,'' he comments, referring to South Carolina's staunchly conservative Republican governor and the NGA's current chairman.
Dean will have ample opportunity to prove his point July 16-19, when the governors gather in Boston for their annual meeting. They'll deal with a range of subjects, wrapped around a theme of ``progress through technology.''
Partisanship is a subject much on the Vermont governor's mind. His state was thought likely to come up with a model health-insurance reform plan this year, but the plan ground to a halt in the Legislature. It was killed, Dean says, by ``an unholy alliance'' of left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans. He says the former wanted only their own ``single-payer'' plan, and the latter wanted no plan at all.
Dean, himself a physician, has made health care a priority for his administration, but he isn't optimistic about extensive reform at the state level in Vermont. ``We need a health-care bill from Congress as a base to build on,'' he says. The governor says that Vermont's Legislature, like many others, is a part-time body that lacks the time to work through a complex issue like health care. He also suggests that the liberal wing in Congress is not as doctrinaire, and therefore as opposed to compromise, as Vermont's own left.
Dean offers a warning to anyone undertaking health insurance reform. Cost controls, he says, have to be at the heart of an effective national plan. ``What you find out is that just covering everyone and then calling it a day won't work - you'll just keep pouring tax dollars into a system that's soaking up money at three times the rate of inflation.''
Controlling costs is in fact a gubernatorial preoccupation these days. Fiscal conservatives like Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) of New Jersey are making a name for themselves by following through on campaign promises to shrink the size of government. Dean, too, has made balancing his state's budget a prime goal.
``I'm firmly committed to fiscal responsibility,'' says the Vermonter, who doesn't reject the label ``new Democrat,'' but describes himself as a little to the left of the Democratic Leadership Council, the organization that Bill Clinton helped found when governor of Arkansas.
While affirming that his liberal instincts on social matters are intact, Dean is an outspoken proponent of frugal government. ``Tax and spend has to disappear,'' he says. The recession may have ``kicked off'' a return to fiscal fundamentals, he says, but the public's strong backing for reduced spending will sustain the trend toward leaner, more efficient government.
One of the factors weighing most heavily against fiscal responsibility, Dean says, is the onslaught of unfunded federal mandates. He sees such directives as particularly burdensome in education. ``Our schools are held hostage to the federal government, through such mandates as special education,'' he adds.
Dean doesn't see much chance of more federal money, so he pins his hopes on a rollback of mandates. He finds ``some receptivity to change'' in Washington in this regard. A number of congressmen and senators have introduced legislation aimed at forcing Congress to assess the financial impact of its mandates on states and localities.
Dean says his priority as chair of the NGA will be children, emphasizing education, health care, and social services - where thoughtful spending ``up front'' can prevent huge outlays later, whether for emergency care, welfare, or prisons. He plans a statement on the topic the last day of the conference.