The spotlight was on Mississippi as the 101st National Governors Association summer conference was held in Biloxi. There were some notable, even surprising, absences among the governors. NGA staff members and Gov. Haley Barbour’s office were hesitant to say how many governors attended. Some estimates were 19 and others were as low as 15. A few governors, including New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, flew to Biloxi for one day of the three-day event.
Those in attendance, their staff members and other government workers discussed a range of pressing issues that included economic recovery, energy, security, education and natural resources.
The conference began with a news conference at the federal courthouse in Gulfport with a panoramic view of the Mississippi Sound and state port. In his welcoming remarks, host Gov. Barbour called attention to the old Markham Hotel where the 1935 governors conference was held.
“Everything you see from here was devastated by Katrina. This federal building had water in the first floor and was out of use one year,” he pointed out. “As you can see, a tremendous comeback has been made. There is progress but there’s still a lot to do.”
Barbour noted the conference’s infrastructure theme as symbolic for Mississippi. Surprisingly, NGA chairman Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania did not come because his state’s government was threatened with a shutdown without an adopted budget. Rendell chose the infrastructure theme as the focus for his year as chairman.
In his absence, the vice chair, Gov. James H. Douglas of Vermont, presided over plenary sessions and praised Barbour’s post-Katrina leadership.
“The eyes of the world were on Mississippi,” he said. “Haley showed tremendous leadership and true grit.”
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin expressed the budget angst the nations’ governors are facing.
“My state has been able to dodge the bullet, but the economic challenges governors are facing are real,” he said. “We’ve witnessed a 24 percent decline in revenues, and 42 states have been forced to reduce budgets. I don’t know what we would have done without the stimulus package, and we’re still predicting shortfalls.”
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell joined the chorus of economic woes by telling of Toyota and GM automobile plants closing in his state. “There’s no more critical time for our states and governors than now,” he said.
Unlike the others, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer explained that his state is one of the few with a surplus of funds. “I’ve been looking at the casinos here and thinking I could take that surplus, double down with it and go home with more money for our state,” he said.
Schweitzer went on to express a thought heard from other governors during the conference: governors are the CEOs of their states. With that thought relating to presidential politics, he and other governors feel someone from their ranks makes a better president.
“A successful governor learns he must say no and keep money in the bank,” he said. “Like a CEO, a governor has to say no. Members of Congress say yes to everything and decide by committees.”
Other absent governors included New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine who was scheduled to chair the economic development and commerce committee meeting. Sarah Palin did not show up from Alaska to chair the natural resources committee. Gov. Bobby Jindal didn’t drive over from neighboring Louisiana. Governors who’re often in the news were no shows too, including Sanford of North Carolina, Crist of Florida, Pawlenty of Minnesota, Granholm of Michigan and Schwarzenegger of California.
With economic problems on all attendees’ minds, a senior vice president with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta told the governors he thinks the recession will end in the third quarter this year.
“We’re on our way to some minimal growth in the third quarter, but it won’t feel like the end of the recession,” Dr. David E. Altig said. “That will likely be the case for a while to come. The restructuring has begun. Everything carries over to a global economy. China is the only one of our trading partners likely to grow.”
Jeff Grogan, a partner and senior account manager with the Monitor Group, expressed optimism for ways states can deal with the recession.
“What sort of uniqueness exists in each state that will help them recover?” he asked. “How can each state best create a business environment and foster a cluster-based economic strategy?”
The Honorable Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, addressed the group on Sunday.
“We intend to be flexible with homeland security,” she said. “Governors are security people. As a former governor, I know that is true and I am stressing that governors can have input and help us nationally.”
Following her remarks, Gov. Douglas presented Napolitano with an award of service and recognized her as NGA’s first woman chair. She was also Arizona’s first woman governor.
Conference attendees were treated to a plethora of good food during their visit. The Sunday evening dinner was called A Taste of Mississippi and featured dishes from the state’s five regions – the Hills, the Delta, the Pines, the Capitol/River District and the Gulf Coast. The selections included oysters on the half shell; fried catfish and chicken; barbeque; shrimp and grits; gumbo; and banana pudding.
This conference was planned twice as it was originally scheduled for 2006 and cancelled due to Katrina damage. Joe Cloyd, executive director of the group that planned the conference, said the group began planning for this year’s meeting in 2006.
“It’s only because of the tremendous recovery effort that we were able to have the conference,” he said. “The preparations were about public and private partnerships. We worked closely to ensure the meeting ran smoothly and that all guests had a good overview of Mississippi in general and the Gulf Coast in particular.”
Cloyd said the partners were MDA Tourism, Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, the city of Biloxi, the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center and the Beau Rivage Resort.
“We expect this conference to pay long-term dividends as the attendees go home and tell others about what Mississippi is doing and what the Gulf Coast has to offer,” he added.
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