WASHINGTON -U.S. governors on Saturday welcomed money heading their way from President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan, but said it was only a down payment on improving dire fiscal conditions in their states. Most also downplayed criticism of the plan by a handful of Republican governors, who have said they may reject some of the stimulus funds.
Leaders of most of the 50 states and U.S. territories were attending the three-day winter meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington. The meeting focused on the need for infrastructure improvement, which is expected to absorb much of the stimulus funding directed to states.
Several of the governors were escaping drama in their own states, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who signed the state's overdue budget last week after a bruising battle with lawmakers over how to plug the state's mammoth $41 billion budget hole.
Another was newly minted Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois, the former lieutenant governor promoted after his predecessor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, was impeached and removed for allegedly trying to sell Obama's former Senate seat for cash and favors. On Friday, Quinn called on Obama's successor, Roland Burris, to resign after Burris acknowledged he had tried to raise money for Blagojevich, who appointed Burris to the seat.
Yet another Democratic governor, David Paterson of New York, was trying to beat back criticism for his handling of the choice of a successor for Hillary Rodham Clinton, who resigned her New York Senate seat last month to become Obama's secretary of state. Paterson chose former Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, a conservative Democrat, after appearing to snub Caroline Kennedy, another leading contender.
Paterson's popularity has dropped since the flap, prompting speculation that he could face a primary challenge when he runs for re-election in 2010.
But the federal stimulus money remained the central focus for most governors. Most said it was hardly a bailout and that they were still facing painful cuts to state services.
"We're not just getting a handout here -- we're doing the heavy lifting," Vermont Republican Gov. Jim Douglas said. "We're still making tough cuts in budgets, we're making changes in some of our programs. We're doing what we can to live within our means."
For the most part, governors here downplayed an apparent split in Republican ranks over the stimulus plan, which will send billions to states for education, health care and transportation. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a likely 2012 presidential contender, has said he would reject a portion of the money aimed at expanding state unemployment insurance. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has said he may do so as well.
Other Republicans believed to be eyeing a 2012 presidential bid have also criticized the stimulus plan as too big and wasteful, including South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Alaska's Sarah Palin, the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee, who did not attend the conference because she is busy with her state's legislative session..
Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, a potential 2012 contender and strong supporter of the stimulus plan, said the criticism leveled by other Republicans was not rooted in politics.
"I don't know that it's a partisan issue. It's different people, different CEOs -- governors -- who have a different perspective on how it would impact their states," Crist said in an interview. "I know it has a positive impact on Florida. A lot of that money has been paid to the federal treasury by my fellow Floridians and they deserve to get it back."
At issue for Jindal and Barbour is a provision in the stimulus bill that could allow people ineligible for unemployment benefits to receive them anyway. That could eventually force a tax increase on employers, both governors have said.
Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat whose state is on track to receive $8.2 billion in stimulus funding, said he did not buy that argument.
"I am puzzled by those who say we shouldn't do this because it may force us to make a decision at a later time," Strickland said. "If they don't want to raise taxes at a later time, don't raise taxes. That doesn't mean you shouldn't use the resources available to you now."