Governors Vow to Put Kids at Top Of Agenda - and Still Cut Taxes

When Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) sat on the floor with Head Start students at the Cornerstone Christian Church in Medford this week and belted out a Spanish version of "Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes," he made a political point: Education is a top priority even though budget belt-tightening is in order.

"I believe we do need to put more resources into our schools and colleges to make them better and more affordable," Governor Kitzhaber said in his State of the State speech the day before. "But that increased investment must also be accompanied by increased accountability."

Around the country, Republican and Democratic governors in their annual messages to state legislatures are similarly stressing the meat-and-potatoes political issues - education, crime, tax cuts, and welfare reform - while looking for innovative ways of doing more with less.

And like Democrat Kitzhaber, many Republicans are putting help for students and other children at the top of their lists.

Monday, Gov. Fife Symington (R) of Arizona pledged $90 million in new spending for K-12 education (bringing the state's annual total to $2 billion). Gov. George Pataki (R) of New York Tuesday proposed increased spending for public schools - to be paid for by cuts in other areas, such as Medicaid. In his State of the State address yesterday, Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R) offered, as part of his "children and families initiative," a tax break for families in which one parent stays home to care for children.

In its recent "Fiscal Survey of States," the National Governors Association finds "a general 'do-more-with-less' attitude in the nation's statehouses." "With a forecast for frozen federal spending and the possibility of an economic downturn during the next several years, states are building a healthy cushion to help weather economic uncertainties," reports the NGA.

The National Conference of State Legislatures, in its "State Fiscal Outlook for 1997" released this week, notes that revenue collections through the rest of fiscal year 1997 will exceed expectations in 29 states and be on target in another 19 states. Only Hawaii and Idaho expect a slight decline in collections before the end of the fiscal year, according to the Denver-based NCSL.

"States are in good enough fiscal condition that they can offer some tax relief," says NCSL analyst Arturo Prez. In her address to New Jersey legislators Tuesday, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) said a new tax cut there would save small businesses $13 million a year.

Welfare reform will continue to be a key issue, particularly with passage of federal legislation in 1996 giving states more flexibility in setting eligibility and benefits. The National Governors Association anticipates that while such spending won't change much in 1997, the new federal law "may significantly impact state spending over the next several years."

California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) told state lawmakers last week that he wants to "end welfare." His plan would force able-bodied adults off welfare rolls sooner than is now the case.

Welfare reform can also be seen as a crime-fighting measure. Some governors brag of cracking down on dead-beat dads who fail to provide financial support for their children. "Only 19 percent of eligible child support is collected nationally compared with Wisconsin's nearly 40 percent," Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) of Wisconsin boasted in his weekly Internet column.

Welfare reform is not the exclusive political domain of Republicans. Democrat Gary Locke of Washington State, sworn in Wednesday as the first Asian American governor outside of Hawaii, wants to reduce the time recipients can get welfare benefits in his state from 14 years to five years. In his inaugural speech at the capital in Olympia, Governor Locke also proposed property-tax relief for middle-class homeowners and a rollback in the state's business and occupation tax to pre-1993 levels.

While most governors rankle at "unfunded federal mandates" and say they likewise favor local control of government services to the extent possible within their states, in some cases, they're finding it necessary to increase the power of statehouses.

Here in Oregon, voters twice in recent years have passed ballot measures limiting the ability of local governments to raise property taxes. As a result, Governor Kitzhaber says, the state - which now must cover a larger portion of school budgets - needs to be able to set teachers' salaries.

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