By Michael McNutt
Gov. Mary Fallin, who as vice chairman of a national group of governors met with the president last month, will be back in the nation's capital this week urging Congress and the president not to unfairly slash funding to states in their effort to reduce the federal deficit.
Part of the message Fallin hopes to deliver is that states should be freed from spending mandates if federal budget cuts make them unaffordable, the Republican governor said.
"If they cut spending but yet still require us to maintain the same level of service without the money then they're basically going to be balancing the federal budgets on the states' backs and we don't want that happening," she said.
Fallin, along with Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat and chairman of the National Governors Association, will deliver the group's first-ever address on conditions and challenges facing the states. They will give the speech Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington.
"It's the first time that the National Governors Association has had a State of the States speech to the Washington press corps and other interested parties in D.C.," Fallin said. "We just believe that it's important to raise the profiles of the needs of our states, that states and governors can be a great resource of information, especially as we're dealing with the financial issues of our nation and that the governors need to have a seat at the table with the president and Congress to address pressing issues that our nation's facing."
Fallin was one of six governors from both parties who met last month at the White House with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and others to talk about federal spending issues. Fallin got national attention because she sat between the Democratic president and his Treasury secretary.
Fallin said governors realize state budgets will be affected as Congress and the president deal with taking deficit reduction steps in the weeks ahead. A last-minute "fiscal cliff" deal avoided federal cuts from being implemented last week and pushed back the deadline for spending cuts until March 1.
"They still haven't addressed a lot of problems that are facing our nation," she said. "We do know that they're going to have make spending cuts and we certainly believe that they need to get our national debt down."
If a deal isn't reached, then the "federal cliff," or sequestration, could result in Oklahoma losing $137 million in direct federal funding as a result of automatic, governmentwide spending cuts.
Estimates are that Oklahoma, which has five military installations, could lose up to 20,000 jobs, which would include 8,000 military and aerospace-related positions, Fallin said.
Concerned about cuts
The governor said she is concerned what effect defense cuts would have on National Guard units.
"We need the ability to have a National Guard that will be able to provide essential services and not have their budgets slashed so much or their authority taken away that we don't have that resource as governors," she said.
States want more flexibility to collaborate with Congress and the president during their discussions on addressing the nation's debt, entitlement programs and spending cuts "that we all know have to be done in Washington, D.C.," Fallin said.
Governors also can give examples of cutting expenses as states have struggled to recover economically from the 2008 national recession, she said. Oklahoma, for example, during her administration has reduced expenditures by eliminating several agencies and placing them under one office and consolidating all state information technology services and placing them under the same office.
Fallin also said the Insure Oklahoma program, which began several years ago, has been effective in reducing the number of uninsured workers in the state. The program provides state funds to be matched by small businesses and their employees to buy private health insurance coverage. However, a waiver from the federal government that allowed the program to expand may be eliminated, she said.
Fallin will become chairman of the National Governors Association in August. She will be the first Oklahoma governor and the first Republican female governor to serve in the post.
She said the position increases Oklahoma's visibility. She's also working with the National Governors Association staff in developing policies dealing with relationships between states and the federal government.
"It's kind of given us a prime seat at the table to deal directly with the president, the Cabinet secretaries, and certainly we're representing the governors around the nation as we deal with Congress," Fallin said.
It also could lead to some economic perks, she said.
"National organizations and national corporations -- they know who the chair and vice chair is," Fallin said.
"We're finding an increased level of communication from major corporations and national organizations that want to have meetings with me as the vice chair and with my staff which is beneficial to Oklahoma because it's opening up all kinds of doors of opportunities."