WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- Gov. George V. Voinovich of Ohio, easily re-elected in the GOP tide that swept the nation two weeks ago, had a prediction about President Clinton here at the annual Republican Governors' Conference.
"I will bet you that President Clinton is going to turn over a new leaf," he said, "become an enlightened ex-governor and help us deal with this mandates problem."
"This mandates problem" is the continuing overriding concern of governors of both parties about Washington enacting costly programs, then imposing them on states to enforce without sufficient money to pay for them.
The practice was spotlighted most prominently in the fall campaign in California, where voters approved Proposition 187, which would deny nonemergency health, education and welfare services to illegal immigrants and their families -- services that are now federally mandated.
Republican Gov. Pete Wilson won re-election while supporting the proposition and relentlessly demanding that the Clinton administration close the borders with Mexico and pick up the tab to provide such services to those who make their way illegally into the state.
Voinovich has been the lead governor in efforts to stop the flow of mandated programs to the states -- 72 of them since 1987, he says. House and Senate bills limiting Congress' ability to impose hTC unfunded or insufficiently funded programs were blocked this year, Voinovich says, "by a coalition of special interests and the congressional Democratic leadership."
With the Republicans in control of Congress starting in January, he says, "We're going to sit down with them and get it done." And Clinton, if he's wise, "will recognize we are partners, not adversaries" and go along.
"The president has a wonderful opportunity to stand up," he says. "He was for unfunded mandates as a governor. If he's smart, he will become a team player on this."
The focus on unfunded mandates illustrates the new sense of clout exhibited by the Republican governors in the wake of the Nov. 8 elections in which they gained a net of 11 governorships, giving them 30, their high-water mark since 1970. They clearly do not intend to cede party leadership to the GOP leaders in the Senate and House, Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich, for all the attention focused on them, and Gingrich particularly, since the elections.
Another easily re-elected Republican governor, John Engler of Michigan, says there was a time when the governors were willing to accept the federal mandates, provided that the money to pay for programs came with them and the governors had a free hand in implementing them.
"In the past," Engler says, "we were saying, 'Send us the money without the strings,' and they sent us no money and all strings."
Now, the governors want the feds either to stop sending programs they enact to the states without the money needed to carry them out, or to let the states develop the programs themselves when they decide they're needed. It is an old argument, largely dismissed by the Democrats when they controlled Congress. But they can't brush it aside now.
Some Republican governors here agree with Voinovich that the election disaster suffered by the Democrats will persuade Clinton to play ball with them on the mandates issue and others.
Republican pollsters analyzing the midterm elections for the governors offered evidence that the president needs to move more to the center or right of the political spectrum in the next two years if he hopes to regain the modest confidence voters expressed in him in 1992 when he ran as a "New Democrat."
Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies noted that, in a survey of 500 adults a week after the election, 53 percent tabbed Clinton as "an old-style Democrat who believes that government should do more for the people and generally tends to support increased federal spending and raising taxes to pay for it."
Only 39 percent saw him as "a new-style Democrat who believes in limited government and is concerned about cutting the level of government spending and bringing the federal budget under control."
The clear message of the Republican governors to the Democratic president is that he'd better get in step with them in their desire to trim Washington's clout if he is to be perceived again as the "New Democrat" they thought they were buying into two years ago.