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Flexibility in federally mandated programs was the themeat the start of a conference, sponsored by the Taubman Center for State and Local Government. The two-day conference is exploring the role of the federal government in helping states in the current fiscal crisis. States are constitutionally bound to balance their budgets every year, unlike the federal government. In 2004, the fifty states project revenue shortfall of approximately $80 billion.
"The states have been dealt a tough hand," lamented Idaho governor Dirk Kempthorne. "We are coping with the effects of a national recession and the states are dealing with its consequences."
"Cutting taxes is in my blood," noted the Republican governor who said he has been confronted with difficult choices that forced him to raise taxes in order to continue to provide the most basic of services.
"There is a point when you have to balance the bottom line with the needs of real people," he said, describing his veto of a measure that would have cut kidney dialysis for economically disadvantaged people. "It's a death sentence…without an appeal… because they have about two weeks to live without treatment."
Kempthorne called for greater flexibility from the federal government. For example, he said, "for every three dollars I save in Medicaid, I have to send two back to the federal government…what if the federal government gave me the flexibility to keep those dollars and let me invest them in Medicaid where I know we can do significant things."
Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney suggested that some mandates from the federal government don't make sense. For example if someone is at poverty level, the state pays 100% of health care, but if they are just just above it the state pays nothing. Why is there no sliding scale, he asked? "What we want is flexibility in federal programs that allow us to solve problems."
Boston Mayor Tom Menino suggested that a pooling of resources between cities or regions might result in savings and creative solutions. What if the federal government gave additional resources for cities that "are willing to band together," he suggested.
The conference also is scheduled to examine specific policy areas, such as Medicaid, homeland security, education, family assistance and transportation. The goal of the conference is to develop a "white paper" highlighting some of the most promising proposals from the conference.
L-R, Governor Mitt Romney, Mayor Thomas Menino, Governor Dirk Kempthorne, Dean Joseph Nye, Professor Bob Behn