BY EDDIE KIM – National experts and legislators from 13 Western states convened in Waikiki on Monday, August 1 to discuss the nation’s fiscal woes and how federal budget cuts may impact state governments more dramatically than predicted.

The conference was part of an annual meeting of the Council of State Governments (CSG) – West division, which includes lawmakers from Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Chris Whatley, Director of the Council of State Governments, detailed potential consequences from Congress’ debt debate and most recent agreement.

“Even small percentage cuts to domestic agency budgets will yield steep drops in state funding. For example, a 2.5% federal cut to Homeland Security could result in a 57% cut of the same budget in a state government,” Whatley said.

“State and local grants will carry the burden of the federal non-security spending cuts,” he added.

He also noted that the Congressional joint committee on the debt crisis – which President Barack Obama announced on July 31 as part of a new agreement between Democrats and Republicans – “would likely propose at least $100 billion in cuts to Medicaid over the next 10 years.”

Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, told attendees that although the federal cuts would be long-term, state governments could foresee a stabilization and rise in spending as soon as the 2013 fiscal year.

At the same time, Pattison called for greater accountability in state governments to foster increased efficiency in spending.

“You need to ask questions about performance,” Pattison said.  “Ask for outcome data from the various departments.  We should be using information about department performance to justify changes to programs.”

Legislators also took time during the meeting to reflect on their respective states’ efforts and fiscal situations, with most of the discussion decidedly bleak.

“We make the tough choices when it comes to spending, but we still don’t know if we’re actually solving any problems,” said Sen. Rich Crandall of Arizona.

California State Senator Michael Rubio lamented the necessary cuts to state education, which could possibly lead to reductions of school days for K-12 students in California.

“How are our kids supposed to compete in the global market if they’re going to class 30, 40 days less than the average?” Rubio said.

And Senate Ways and Means Chair David Ige told conference members that like other states, Hawaii had developed significant budget problems over the past fiscal year, leaving the state with few funds to use immediately.

“We’ve made a 20% reduction in our operating budget,” Ige stated, “but this budget cycle drained our ‘rainy day’ fund [a reserve amount of funding for use when regular income is drastically affected] to zero.”

CNN’s Candy Crowley – the Chief Political Correspondent for the network – also addressed the ballroom of politicians.

“At Washington [D.C], the parts…are greater than the whole,” she said, evoking laughter and nodding heads through the crowd.  “You know what? [Legislators] try hard.  But somehow, when everyone joins together to meet as Congress, it all breaks down.”

“People self-segregate, even today – where we live, what clubs we join, and the like – and that mentality leads to things like [gerrymandering].  So you end up with like-minded voters only sending like-minded politicians who only know their own side to the capitol, and I think that leads to the inability of many politicians to walk in each others’ shoes,” Crowley said.

“A good thing is that in D.C. today, everyone is unhappy…which means there’s been some compromise,” she added with a smile.

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