When the well runs dry

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By Ralph Damiani

Last week the nation’s governors met in Biloxi, Miss., for the National Governors Association’s summer convention.

And guess what? They all said they were broke.

Surprise, surprise.

And a message they sent loud and clear is that the states cannot afford to pick up any extra expenses.

There has been some talk in Congress that the states should be forced to make up some of the expenses that the feds are now paying, from health care to national security.

But Democrats and Republicans alike at the convention said state budgets are already strained by recession.

Governors meet semi-annually to seek bipartisan consensus on issues affecting states. And while only 25 governors attended the weekend meeting – as some stayed home to tackle budgets – the message was clear: We are broke.

Several governors joined in the call to have Congress revise requirements for this fall for secure driver’s licenses that are intended to help boost national security. The governors said federal mandates for the licenses are too expensive, and 13 states have voted not to participate in the Real ID Act passed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Real ID-compliant driver’s licenses would have layers of security to prevent forgery, such as verification of birth certificates, Social Security numbers and immigration status.

The Senate Homeland Security Committee last week started working on a revised and less expensive plan called Pass ID, supported by the governors.

States’ cost to fulfill requirements of Real ID would be about $4 billion.

During discussions about health care, several governors told the Associated Press they worry federal legislation could push billions of dollars in new expenses on their states for Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the needy.

If forced to do this, many said that states would have to raid programs that fund the environment, transportation, education, public safety and many things that states do.

Washington’s Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, is quoted as saying that too much of the discussion in Congress is about the cost of health care. “If we’re not also talking about how do we get better, higher quality health care to the people of this nation, I think we lose them in the process.”

Gov. Richardson said he likes President Obama’s plan to use public and private options for health care, but he worries Congress will dilute the plan and pass billions in new expenses on to states.

All this is true and states are really having a hard time and it is getting harder. But what must not be lost in all this is that the budget crunch is worse as you go down.

Local governments, such as cities and counties and especially school districts, are suffering beyond their abilities to deal.

And they can’t go to the state government that barely has money itself.

The greater tragedy is that the federal government has always been the big money pot. But with the spending it has done in the last six months, that pot is empty.

Reports are more and more gloomy about how long this recession – depression? – will last and how bad it will get.

As states revenue sources dry up and the federal government becomes less and less able to pay its own bills, let alone come to the aid of the states, the local governments are truly going to be left out to dry.