WASHINGTON — Politicians in Washington can learn from governors as they collaborate on issues such as workforce development, transportation and public safety, governors gathered here for the National Governors Association winter conference said Saturday.
"We don't have the luxury of inaction as we see many times here in Washington," Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican and NGA chair, said during a news conference with other governors. "Governors are expected to solve problems, expected to address issues that face our states, which in turn, I believe helps our nation."
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat and NGA vice chair, said, "Unlike what you see in Congress … we love to share and steal ideas from each other and see them improved. And then we steal them back."
The three-day meeting Saturday through Monday brings governors together to discuss issues affecting their states and ways to strengthen their partnerships with the federal government. Among the hot topics of the day: workforce development, improvements to education, transportation and infrastructure, funding the National Guard and combating prescription drug abuse.
The conference includes meetings with President Obama, Cabinet officials, business leaders and other experts. The governors are invited to the White House on Sunday night for a black-tie dinner, and they return the next day for a meeting with the president.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, chair of the Republican Governors Association, made headlines Friday when his spokesman said he would return to New Jersey before the White House dinner to celebrate his daughter's birthday and focus on his budget address. Christie, whose administration is being investigated for abuse of power because of a traffic scandal, is keeping a low profile here and skipped the Saturday news conference.
Those governors who gathered before the opening session focused on bipartisanship and notably avoided mentioning problems with the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, Obama's signature legislative achievement and an issue Republicans hope will buoy them in the next elections.
"We can accomplish a lot by working together in a spirit of collaboration," Fallin said.
Governors said they're seeking more flexibility from the federal government to pursue innovative policies and get better outcomes for their money.
"Flexible federalism is kind of the catch word of this session," Hickenlooper said.
Polls show Americans have higher opinions of state and local governments than the federal government. And 69% of Americans believe the federal government should run only those things that cannot be run at the local level, according to polling in 2012 by the Pew Research Center.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said his state would take less federal money for roads, education or Medicaid expansion if the federal government would do away with the "strings and red tape."
"We're proposing to the administration and the Congress, take away some of these inhibitors of making us more efficient," he said. "Give more flexibility to the states and we can we can take less money and do more with it."
Obama's budget is expected to be released in March. Fallin said governors believe it's essential that deficit reduction not be accomplished by shifting costs to states.
"We can't support unfunded mandates coming down to our states and those shifting of costs," she said.
A fiscal 2014 spending bill that the president signed into law last month eased across-the-board "sequestration" spending cuts for two years, but the governors said the deep cuts already hurt states last year.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, said what's needed in Washington now is the kind of bipartisan cooperation that led to federal surpluses during the Clinton administration when Republicans controlled Congress. Governors, by comparison, have so many issues where they align that "you can almost drop the party label," he said.
"We've got certain areas where we do disagree and we'll get into fights," he said. "But our problem-solving requirements seem to transcend all that political rhetoric and all those political labels."
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