This past Tuesday, six governors, including Arkansas’, met with President Obama to offer the states’ perspective on this whole fiscal cliff mess. Their bipartisan message: We’re willing to help, even to sacrifice, to avoid going over the cliff. But don’t ask us to bail you out.
In a press conference Wednesday at the Capitol in Little Rock, Gov. Mike Beebe described the 90-minute meeting as a "pretty intimate conversation" where nobody was being "bashful." He and the rest of the National Governors Association executive committee – a total of three Democrats, three Republicans – sat around a table in the Roosevelt Room with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and the head of the Office of Management and Budget, Jeffrey Zients.
Beebe said the governors recognize that the federal government has gotten itself into such a pickle running these $1 trillion annual budget deficits that no one will escape unscathed – including states, which receive a lot of federal dollars.
"We didn’t want to be a hypocrite and say, ‘Cut everybody but leave the states alone.’ … That’s what gets us into this mess,’" he said. "Everybody wants everybody else to take the pain, and you can’t solve the problem doing that."
Washington is apparently incapable of making the hard budget decisions that tend to get members of Congress not re-elected. The easy way to avoid those decisions is to make the states make them, which is what governors are worried about. They fear Washington will push a lot of its fiscal problems into states’ laps and say, "Here, you deal with it."
That’s actually an option I would prefer to the status quo. At some point, a lot of unpleasant choices must be made. The political system in Washington has not shown it is capable of making those choices in a long time.
So I’m willing to make Beebe’s life harder and take part of this mess out of Washington and dump it in Little Rock. The governor and state legislators would have to do what Congress and the president have failed to do – spend no more than is collected. It would be ugly, but state elected officials are accessible and they know Arkansas. As Beebe told reporters, "I trust us more than I trust them."
But governors understandably don’t want to be asked to bail out the federal government, and they certainly don’t want to be asked to do the impossible. They do not want Washington to mandate that states provide services but not provide federal funding to pay for them or, worse, attach so many strings that states will have no option but to fail. That will just result in a lot of lawsuits.
"Whatever they turn over to us in terms of obligations, they don’t need to be strapping us with the inevitability that we can’t pay for them," the governor said.
The state is trying to plan how it will respond to whatever comes its way. That is hard to do, though, when the future is so murky.
Beebe did not leave the White House with any better idea of what’s going to happen with this fiscal cliff than he had beforehand. He does believe he has an open line to the White House, and he was encouraged that the six governors spoke as one voice despite their partisan differences.
They did not, however, present the president with a specific plan, because then the governors would have started disagreeing about the details.
And the details, of course, are where the difficulties lie.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org