WASHINGTON — On the recession's front lines, governors are struggling to chart the road ahead for states staggered by unrelenting joblessness and cut-to-the-bone budgets even as Washington reports signs of economic growth.
"The worst probably is yet to come," warned Gov. Jim Douglas, R-Vt., chairman of the National Governors Association, at the group's meeting Saturday. He called the situation "fairly poor" in most states, adding that it "doesn't look too good."
Such uncertainty weighed heavily over the governors' weekend meeting even though health care — and how states can address skyrocketing costs — was the intended focus. That's recognized as one of the biggest issues affecting states' long-term solvency.
As the meeting opened, first lady Michelle Obama sought governors' help in her campaign to tackle childhood obesity, though she acknowledged, "I know that many of you are stretched thinner than ever in these times and don't actually have money to spare."
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States face budget holes totaling $134 billion over the next three years, according to the governors, who explained that tax collections keep declining as Medicaid costs soar. High unemployment persists. States cut 18,000 jobs in January alone and more job losses are anticipated. Because states are required to balance their budgets, shortfalls will be made up by raising taxes or fees or cutting services.
Neither is easy in an election year where 37 states are poised to vote for new chief executives.
While the national economy has grown in recent months, the situation is deteriorating in the states. People are feeling the fallout daily, seeing fewer services and higher fees. It's a trend consistent with other recessions; states usually experience their worst budget years in the two years after a recession ends.