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From highways to health care, challenges confront governors

July 24, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Money to repair highways, rising health care costs and controversies surrounding attempts to combat global warming are among topics the nation’s governors plan to tackle when they gather this week in West Virginia.

The National Governors Association summer meeting, which runs Thursday through Saturday at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, comes as states find themselves grappling with an array of issues that defy easy answers. Those include long-range funding for infrastructure upgrades, the effects of prolonged drought, and adequately funding public schools and colleges.

States’ economic conditions generally have improved since the national recession, but the retirement of the baby boom population will put pressure on governments as public pension and health care costs continue to rise, said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California.

“In the short term, it’s not too bad because the economy has been recovering and a lot of the states are not in those dire fiscal situations they were in a few years ago,” Pitney said. “However, every farsighted state governor knows the good times won’t last.”

Some storm clouds already are appearing.

An Associated Press analysis this spring found that at least 22 states will be dealing with budget shortfalls for the 2016 fiscal year. This month, the AP also found that enrollments and costs have surged way beyond projections in many of the states that opted to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Because Medicaid costs account for such a large part of state budgets, that is raising concerns that states will have to make cuts in education and other areas to afford the low-income health care program once the federal government begins reducing its share.

Missing from the conference will be the four governors who are vying for the Republican nomination for president next year. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin have commitments elsewhere, according to their staffs and campaign officials.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, the association chairman, and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah, the vice chairman, did not make themselves available for interviews before the meeting.

The ritzy Greenbrier hotel rises out of West Virginia’s struggling southern coalfields, a setting that illustrates the divide between governors who urge swift action on climate change and those who are fighting regulations against greenhouse gas emissions because of their state’s reliance on the fossil fuel industry.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, who is chairman of the association’s natural resources committee, has been outspoken about the need for states to take action against global warming rather than wait for the federal government. While Brown remains listed on the agenda for this week’s meeting, his office said he had not planned to attend.

Instead, he was in Rome to attend a Vatican summit called by Pope Francis following the release of his encyclical on climate change and poverty. In his speech at the Vatican, Brown said global warming deniers were putting “troglodytes” into office rather than environmentally responsible leaders.

The Democratic governor is pushing a state plan that his administration calls the most aggressive carbon-reduction benchmark in North America. It would increase statewide renewable electricity use to 50 percent, have drivers use half as much gasoline and make buildings twice as energy-efficient as they are now.

By comparison, elected officials from both parties in West Virginia blast the Obama administration’s push to curb greenhouse gas emissions. They say the regulations unfairly target an already-fizzling Appalachian coal industry.

The state has led or joined lawsuits against several U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

This year, West Virginia got rid of its state alternative energy standard, although it was hardly strict. Burning many types of coal — and even tires — counted as alternative energy. The coal industry helped write the law in the first place but came out in opposition to it this year.

“When we look at changes in our policy in this country, we need to also look at the economics involved with it and what effect it’s having on coal states,” said West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat. “Obviously, we can all see what effect it’s having here in West Virginia, as far as the loss of jobs and, which goes along with that, the loss in tax dollars.”

Faced with ballooning health care costs, governors also will hear from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, a West Virginia native. U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez will be the other high-level federal official addressing the group.

Governors also are anxiously awaiting action from Congress on a transportation bill as their roads, highways and bridges worsen. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, announced a deal on a six-year funding bill earlier this week, but it immediately ran into procedural delays from Democrats.

Authority for transportation programs expires July 31, which would eliminate the transportation department’s ability to process promised highway and transit aid to states.

Already, the total money available to states from the Federal Highway Trust Fund has declined 3.5 percent during the five-year period ending in 2013, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press.

Some states, including ones like Michigan with Republican leadership, are mulling tax and fee hikes to address pressing road problems.


This version has been updated to note that California Gov. Jerry Brown’s office says he had not been planned to attend the meeting; Brown remains listed on the agenda.

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