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Feds must meet responsibilities to states

Next week’s release of the 2006 White House budget recommendations will be a fateful moment for states.

It will set the tone of the president’s second term, and send a clear message about what kind of partnership the federal government wants to have with our states. While there are many ways it works well with states, many governors have noticed an alarming trend over the last few years.

In many ways, the federal government has actually become an obstacle in meeting the needs of our people. When it comes to homeland security, protecting our border and ensuring access to health care for our children and seniors, it has been an unreliable partner.

While I certainly hope we can turn the corner, troubling news reports from Washington, D.c= regarding the administration’s likely proposal are causing great concern for governors – Republicans and Democrats alike.

For my state, the consequences could not be more serious.

More people illegally cross Arizona’s southern border than the other three Southwestern Border States combined – an estimated 4,000 people every day and more than a million each year. If our border remains vulnerable and unprotected, then the next time terrorists enter the country, it may not be by airplane.

This federal government has failed to produce real immigration reform and provide adequate funding to protect the border. Instead, the White House and the Congress last year – over the protest of dozens of governors – took aim at the homeland security budget, slashing resources for states by one third. Has the terrorist threat against the United States really declined by more than one third?

In last year’s intelligence bill, Congress called for 10,000 additional U.S. Border Patrol agents over the next five years in an effort to boost security at the border. But Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said last month that the federal government simply could not afford this.

The federal government’s declaration of homeland and border security as critical safety issue while cutting the resources we need to protect ourselves sends what some might call a “mixed message.”

States face many real consequences from the federal government’s refusal to allocate the resources to protecting our border.

Each year, states incur about $13 billion in criminal justice costs for housing illegal criminal aliens. How much does $13 billion mean to states? That’s nearly twice Arizona’s entire budget.

Arizona houses more than 4,000 illegal criminal aliens in our state prison system each year. Under the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), the federal government is required to reimburse us for our costs. From 1996 to 2002 the program reimbursed states $500 million to $585 million each year. But since 2003, the Bush administration has proposed no funding for SCAAP, which would have left states to fend for themselves.

I’ve asked the United States for reimbursement, but a straight answer, just like the money owed to states, hasn’t come.

Unfortunately, the federal government’s message to states here is clear: You’re on your own.

That’s the same message we’re getting on health care, too. But this time, instead of weakening our security, the White House and the Congress are aiming to balance the budget on the backs of seniors and children. Indications are the president’s budget will target federal spending on Medicaid, cutting health care for more than 50 million Americans. It’s an untimely and irresponsible move, and one that shifts an undue financial burden to the states.

Increasing health care costs have already had a profoundly negative impact on states. In Tennessee, Gov. Phil Bredesen was forced to make a controversial decision to purge the rolls of TennCare, their state’s Medicaid program, that could leave 323,000 Tennesseans to fend for themselves. While there are still legal battles taking place about this decision, it illustrates the tough spot states are put in when the federal government abdicates responsibility. If the federal government pursues cuts to Medicaid spending, more states may be forced to make similar decisions.

That’s why governors from all across the nation, on both sides of the aisles, are steadfastly opposing these cuts. Our message to the federal government is also clear: Do your job, and meet your responsibilities to all Americans.

While there are many issues that states will be monitoring during Wednesday’s State of the Union and the budget release next week, homeland security, border security and health care are critical areas where the federal government has much work to do.

States and the federal government must be on the same page on these issues. The federal government has an opportunity to turn things around and turned a strained relationship into a strong partnership for the benefit of all our people. Count me as one of many governors hoping they seize it.

Janet Napolitano is the governor of Arizona. She previously served as the state’s attorney general and as a U.S. Attorney.

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