WASHINGTON _ Governors who back the economic stimulus package expressed optimism Saturday that the money will help them avoid cutting their budgets further and stem the rising rate of unemployment in their hard-hit states.
Speaking as governors from across the nation gather in Washington for the National Governors Association's winter meeting, the association's chairman, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, told reporters that the bill _ though not perfect _ is a "tremendous help" to the states.
The Democratic governor, who noted that governors worked with President Barack Obama's administration to craft the bill, pledged that governors would be "good stewards" of how the money is spent. Obama warned the nation's mayors Friday that he'll "call out" anyone who wastes the stimulus dollars on political projects.
"We understand our obligation and all of us, whether we supported the bill wholeheartedly or whether we had questions about the bill, all of us intend to be good stewards of the money that we spend with this bill," Rendell said "All of us intend to do it in an effective and efficient way."
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Rendell dismissed criticism that the bill is a bailout for the states, arguing that the states' budget deficits dwarf the amount of state aid in the bill.
"There's not a state in this union that is going to be able to use the stimulus money to wipe away all the problems, all the challenges we face," he said, noting that though Pennsylvania stands to gain $5 billion, the state recently cut its budget by $1 billion.
"States are not off the hook," he said. "We're doing difficult and challenging things ourselves. ... This stops us from having massive layoffs and incredible reduction in services."
Kentucky Gov. Steven Beshear said he believes the bill will help his state weather the economic downturn and "stop this climbing unemployment rate."
Not all governors have embraced the package, and some Republican governors have suggested they may turn down the money. But Rendell and other governors called the flap overblown and suggested that most governors will accept some of the funding.
"I really believe in the end, most governors across the political spectrum, are going to look at individual components of the (bill) and decide what makes sense for their individual states and do everything they can to put their residents back to work," said Vermont's Republican Gov. James Douglas, who has supported the stimulus package.
Rendell noted that the package does have the enthusiastic support of the Republican governors of two of the nation's largest states: California's Arnold Schwarzenegger and Florida's Charlie Crist.
Crist even helped Obama pitch the package at a visit to Fort Myers earlier this month. He said Saturday that he's touting the bill's promise to fellow governors.
"The money is a real shot in the arm," Crist said of the state's expected $12.2 billion share of the stimulus bill. "It could not come at a better time for states that need the help."
Crist has proposed spending a big part of the stimulus money in the state's next budget and brushed off suggestions that his support for the stimulus package has sparked the ire of fellow Republicans.
"I don't sense that so much," he said. "People disagree, that's healthy, that's democracy. But I have to do in my heart what I think is good for the people and I think this bill is great for the people. People have different points of view, I respect that."
Speaking at a forum on infrastructure, Schwarzenegger called the stimulus “a terrific package” but expressed disappointment that it did not include more funding for infrastructure projects. But he said America's politicians need to do a better job of marketing if they want to spend more on fixing the nation’s roads and bridges.
“The word infrastructure means nothing to the majority of people of America,” Schwarzenegger said. “We have to come up with a sexier word than infrastructure.”
A day after signing off on California’s state budget, the Republican governor also criticized the federal government for not doing enough planning on infrastructure projects to see them through.
“I think it is important for us to recognize that our infrastructure in this country is like a developing country rather than a developed country because we’ve fallen behind,” Schwarzenegger said. “One thing, for instance, is the rail system. When you think about it, our trains go the same speed today as they did a hundred years ago, so where’s the progress?”
The governors will dine at the White House Sunday night with the president and first lady Michelle Obama and are to talk with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House on Monday morning.