Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) – Governors will search for common ground on changes they want to see in welfare and Medicaid during their winter meeting here, while pressing on a united front for more federal transportation money.

When state leaders speak with one voice on an issue, Washington tends to listen.

“We can find the most bipartisan support on transportation funding,” said Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton, vice chairman of the National Governors Association, adding there are “not a great deal of philosophical issues” in the area of transportation construction. While he expects broad agreement on the problems of Medicaid and welfare, there are more likely to be philosophical debates between governors on the details.

The states’ need for the transportation money overrides such partisan differences.

Lawmakers in both the Senate and House introduced legislation earlier this month to add money for highway construction to the administration’s budget, saying proposed cuts could mean the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

The administration reduction stems from shortfall in federal gasoline taxes, which finances the highway construction trust fund.

President Bush’s budget plan for the year beginning next Oct. 1 provides $22.6 billion for the Federal Highway Administration, the agency in charge of road construction, with total outlays to the states down more than $8 billion next year.

This comes at a time when states are getting hit hard by recession and are trying to update outdated tax structures better suited to manufacturing economies than to high-tech economies, said Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican who is chairman of the NGA.

“The situation probably will get worse before it gets better,” Engler said Saturday as he opened the four-day meeting. “The recovery of state revenues lags behind the recovery of the national economy.”

Governors from both parties agree they will be asking for restoration of highway funding. They generally agreed social programs like Medicaid and welfare need changes, but they avoided citing specific areas of disagreement before starting their work sessions.

“The National Governors Association operates in areas where there can be bipartisan agreement,” Patton said. “If it’s really divisive, we won’t address it.”

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He noted two of the governors’ most successful areas in recent years have been backing changes in the welfare system and in transportation.

“And there will be universal agreement that we need to do something about Medicaid, it’s a major, major problem that’s getting worse,” said Patton, a Democrat. “I don’t know of any state that doesn’t feel pressed.”

Medicaid eats up about a fifth of state budgets, on average, Engler said, and the costs are growing at a far more rapid pace than the state economies.

Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, chairman of the Republican governors, said the governors will “examine how Medicaid is impacting our state budgets and we’ll have some direct discussions with the president.”

Governors, key players in remaking welfare programs coast to coast, will consider a draft policy that asks Congress for more federal money and more power to offer education and training to welfare recipients. The policy also recommends flexibility to relax the five-year limit on benefits by “stopping the clock” for those working. In addition, they want to bring legal immigrants back into aid programs.

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