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Leavitt ends term as governors chief

Speech by Clinton highlights charged NGA conference

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Like storied Penn State football coach Joe Paterno has done so many times on the gridiron here, Gov. Mike Leavitt will take a spot on the sidelines to see if his information-age game plan scores a touchdown for states in the global economy.

Leavitt's one-year term as chairman of the National Governors Association ended Tuesday in this football-crazy college town where governors from 38 states wrapped their annual meeting. A speech Monday by President Clinton highlighted the penultimate day of the four-day conference, one of NGA's most politicized gatherings in recent years.

"For me, I thoroughly enjoyed this experience. I'm ready for it to be over. I feel like I have accomplished what I had hoped to. I have other things to turn my attention to now," Leavitt said an interview.

Not the least of which is a challenge to his office by the most formidable opponent he has faced in three elections, former Democratic congressman Bill Orton.

Leavitt's tenure as head of the association was marked by an emphasis on states adapting to the 21st century technological boom. He devised a seven-point agenda he believes will help states adapt and build bustling state economies. The governor said the information age offers three choices.

"We can fight it and fail or we can accept and survive or we can lead it and prosper. I say let America lead and prosper," Leavitt said in closing remarks at the Penn State Conference Center.

Clinton expressed his own ideas on the current economy, particularly how to use or rather not use an anticipated federal budget surplus.

Congressional tax cut plans would jeopardize investments in welfare and health insurance for children, he said. The House has already passed tax cuts totaling $550 billion, and if the Republican Congress continues on its path, he said, it could approve more cuts and make election-year spending commitments that "exhaust every dime and then some."

"For us to commit all the projected income of this country over the next 10 years is a mistake," Clinton said.

The president, a past NGA chairman while governor of Arkansas, also turned somewhat introspective, running through a list of issues on which he and the states worked together the past 7 1/2 years.

Leavitt said the 35-minute speech was what he expected — reflective with an edge of partisanship. "I don't think I would have anticipated either to be absent in a speech of a president who is in his situation," Leavitt said.

The entire conference had a partisan undertone from day one. Republicans and Democrats took shots at each other's presidential candidates at one time or another. And governors were still talking about their own upcoming re-election bids or who the vice presidential candidates might be among them as they parted company.

About the only specific thing Leavitt said he agreed with in Clinton's speech was that welfare rolls have been reduced nationwide — by two-thirds in Utah — as result of moving public assistance back to the states.

On the conference's opening day, Leavitt stood with GOP governors — 60 percent of the nation's governors are Republicans — who complained Clinton's promise to return power to the states rang hollow.

"What I saw was President Clinton forgetting to be a governor," Gov. Ed Schafer, R-North Dakota, said at one point during the conference.

Leavitt and Gov. Parris Glendening, D-Maryland, escorted Clinton into the hall but Leavitt did not accompany the president from the airport as Glendening did. Glendening succeeded Leavitt as NGA chairman Tuesday. Leavitt was gracious in introducing Clinton to the crowd, saying the president had shown "great appreciation and value" for governors by opening the White House to them.

After his speech, Clinton spent more than 30 minutes chatting individually with each governor and greeting people. He draped his arms around Leavitt's wife, Jackie, and sons Mike Jr. and Taylor for a photograph before he exited the hall.

Leavitt said Clinton told him he was disappointed that he didn't get to ski in Utah this past February as he and his wife and daughter had the previous two winters.

Said Leavitt, "I told him I understand and we'll like tourists next year, too."

E-MAIL: romboy@desnews.com