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NGA reign nears end for Leavitt

Governor says Utah is ‘template’ for the rest of U.S.

SHARE NGA reign nears end for Leavitt

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Gov. Mike Leavitt's yearlong reign as head of the powerful National Governors' Association comes to an end here next week.

That means no more pitching of the governors' collective agenda, fewer trips to testify before Congress and considerably less time in the national spotlight. The governor has been criticized for the amount of time he spends outside Utah touting proposals such as taxing Internet sales.

"I intend to continue to do this kind of thing, but I'll do it on a basis that's quite selective," Leavitt said.

The NGA annual meeting begins today in central Pennsylvania's Happy Valley, not to be confused with "Happy Valley" in Utah, though both have premier college football programs (Penn State and Brigham Young University) and legends (Joe Paterno and LaVell Edwards) for coaches.

The closest thing to football on the NGA agenda is a Sunday night "tailgate" party on the Penn State campus, one of several social events planned for the four-day session. The conference will focus on positioning states to prosper using technology in the new economy. President Clinton, Colin Powell and Alan Greenspan are among the political heavyweights slated to address the gathering.

Leavitt, the sixth Utah governor to head the NGA (more than any other state), will relinquish his gavel to Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening Tuesday.

During Leavitt's tenure, the organization came out with seven strategies including strengthening education, fostering entrepreneurship and developing electronic government services to help states survive in the high-tech world.

The governor sees Utah as a "template" for the rest of the nation, because it is already putting those initiatives to work.

"I think that's what this is all about, keeping the states as viable institutions in the information age," he said.

To that end, Leavitt seems to be shouting, carpe diem technologia (seize the day technologically.)

Now is the time to invest in education because of its link to economic prosperity, Leavitt says. Now is the time for state governments to use the Internet to deliver driver's license renewals on line, for example, because residents are demanding 24-7 service. And now is the time for states to seize the day's technology before the federal government starts telling them how to use it.

Underlying the governor's push to digitize the states is a theme he has sounded long and loud: new federalism.

Leavitt for years has trumpeted the issue of federalism to return more political power to the states, thereby returning the balance of power between states and the federal government to the equal partnership that, in his opinion, the founding fathers envisioned. Leavitt has argued that states have become subservient to federal mandates. He said he's concerned that states not become politically anemic.

"The issue to me is, do we want the information age to push us to allowing more decisions to be made in Washington? I don't think so," he said. "All of this is about maintaining local control of government."

Leavitt initially raised the notion of taxing Internet sales at an NGA meeting three years ago because he thought the federal government would see it as a way to balance its budget. He said at that time many of his gubernatorial colleagues nodded in agreement.

Of course, the governor has been heavily criticized the past year for advocating that Internet commerce be taxed just as sales in bricks-and-mortar stores are. And many elected officials are steering clear of the thorny issue. Still, Leavitt maintains that it is part of the strategies states must embrace to bring fairness to the market.

"It's been a big part this year for me," Leavitt said. Although he said it was fascinating to watch the issue unfold, he sounded relieved it's headed to another venue. "It's an issue that's moving now to Congress," he said.

While the nation's governors this weekend discuss how to prosper in the new economy, a group representing people who often have limited opportunities to make good is smarting over a perennial NGA snub.

Adapt Utah, local chapter of a national organization representing disabled people, specifically asked Leavitt to give national Adapt an hour on the NGA schedule. It wants to discuss a U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring states to devise plans to relocate disabled people from institutions to community housing.

Leavitt said the group's March request came too late for the agenda. Last month, about 12 Adapt Utah members parked their wheelchairs outside the governor's office in protest.

Disabled advocate Barbara Toomer said the NGA has "stonewalled" Adapt for five years while other organizations such as the U.S. Conference of State Legislators has accommodated it. She said Adapt contemplated a wheelchair blockade during the Pennsylvania meeting but has decided to back off.

"I hope we can have a more thoughtful dialogue," Leavitt said, adding the group has demonstrated at previous meetings. "It's a less productive way, I think."

In an NGA human resources committee meeting Monday, governors are set to the state government's role in taking care of disadvantaged residents.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com