PRINCETON, N.J. -- The incoming chairman of the National Governors' Association challenged his fellow governors yesterday to come up with a consensus plan by February to eliminate the nation's $360 billion budget deficit within five years.
"The time is gone for us to evade this question. We have to say yes or no," said Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, who was installed as chairman at the conclusion of the group's 84th annual meeting.
Mr. Romer, a Democrat, suggested that the nation's governors reconvene for a special meeting sometime after November's election and before the association's winter meeting in February to discuss the deficit problem.
He said he had no illusions about the political difficulty of forging a consensus among 50 headstrong governors from different parties and different states who often face vastly different problems.
But he argued that what happens in dealing with the deficit ultimately will affect each of the states. "We have to be at the table" when the solution is discussed, he said.
Mr. Romer's ambitious agenda, which also calls on the governors to tackle the problem of spiraling health care costs, contrasts sharply with the association's low-profile agenda during this presidential election year. Democrats quietly complained during this year's meeting that Gov. John D. Ashcroft, the conservative Republican from Missouri who chaired the association for the past year, intentionally kept the agenda uncontroversial to assure that nothing would embarrass President Bush as he sought re-election.
Mr. Romer suggested that the deficit reduction discussion focus on:
* An appropriate level for defense spending.
* Eligibility requirements for welfare and other entitlement programs.
* Whether taxes need to be raised and, if so, from what source and at what level of government.
"I personally have a point of view that you can't get rid of a $360 billion budget deficit in five years without some form of revenues," he said.
But as would be expected whenever the issue of taxes is raised, partisan positioning was not far behind.
"Of course the Democrats always want to raise revenues," said Republican Guy Hunt of Alabama. Noting that Mr. Bush has "been bit" by the tax issue, he said: "I don't suppose any of us Republican governors want to be bit by it."
But Mr. Hunt said he thought it was possible that the governors might work together to influence Congress. "Something could happen," he said.
Even Mr. Romer's new vice chairman, Republican Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina, said new revenues might ultimately be necessary, although he was not ready to reach that conclusion yet.
First, he said, the governors need to sort out which programs should be fully funded by the federal government, which should be exclusively the prerogative of the states and which should be dropped or cut back.
But he agreed with the new chairman that the governors must push themselves to the bargaining table.
"We are the recipients of what comes out of Washington," said Mr. Campbell, himself a former congressman. "We have to operate."