WASHINGTON — On Sunday night, Washington state Gov. Chris Gregoire will go to the White House for a black-tie dinner, where she'll sit next to the president and give a toast in his honor.
Gregoire, the new chair of the National Governors Association, will be much more visible this weekend than most of her colleagues, who are assembling in Washington for their annual winter meeting.
But with most states broke and making big budget cuts, Gregoire will be contending with much more than fancy dinners.
The governors are expected to spend a lot of their time talking about their money woes, which Gregoire called "an unprecedented fiscal crisis" for states. Last month, 29 new governors — the largest class in history — assumed office facing total deficits of $175 billion through 2013.
"It's a fascinating time to be leading them," Gregoire said in an interview.
As one of her first official acts, Gregoire is opposing a plan that would allow states to file bankruptcy. It has been aired on Capitol Hill in recent weeks, after former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida floated the idea last month.
In an op-ed published in newspapers around the country, Gingrich and Bush said that allowing states to file bankruptcy would free them from union obligations and ensure that they wouldn't be bailed out by Congress.
But Gregoire, who was elected NGA chair in November and is only the second woman to ever head the bipartisan group, said that allowing states to file bankruptcy would only increase interest rates, raise the costs of state government and create more volatility in financial markets.
"We don't want it. We're not interested in it," said Gregoire, adding that she decided to speak out on the issue because she wanted to "stop the conversation."
Gregoire has put together a packed agenda for the three-day event, which officially begins Saturday.
She and a group of 13 other Democratic governors will kick things off on Friday by meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House to discuss jobs and the economy.
This weekend, the governors will meet privately with Cabinet members, congressional leaders and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Bill Gates of Microsoft fame will speak at a closing session on Monday.
But with so many new governors, Gregoire said the conference will include four private governor-only sessions. She said she wants the governors to meet behind closed doors as a way to promote "candor and openness" and to make it easier for them to get to know each other better.
In private, Gregoire said, governors also will discuss this year's congressional agenda and decide what they want to emphasize on Capitol Hill this year. She said governors are particularly worried about the rising costs of health care, another item on the weekend agenda.
"The inflation rate of health care is killing businesses, families and state governments," Gregoire said.
Gregoire is the fifth Washingtonian to become chair of the NGA, the last being Democrat Booth Gardner in 1990-91. It's a position that Bill Clinton held in 1986-87, before becoming president.
It's common for each NGA chair to pitch a pet project each year.
Gregoire said she will promote her "Complete to Compete" program, an attempt to enlist help from the governors in getting more students to graduate from two- and four-year public colleges.
Among her goals: She wants universities to use more "transparent accountability measures," making it easier for the public to rate schools on their graduation rates. She wants to see more minority students graduate. And she wants to allow students who quit college needing only a few credits to complete their coursework online.
Nebraska Republican Gov. Dave Heineman, the vice chair of the governors group, said that Gregoire will be leading the association at a time when states will be looking for long-term strategies to cut costs and make state governments more efficient.
"It will take extraordinary leadership from governors around the country to take the necessary and difficult steps to create a smaller, leaner government," he said.
Gregoire arrived in Washington on Thursday and plans to leave on Tuesday. She will lead press conferences on behalf of the governors on Saturday and Monday. And she plans to have separate meetings with Washington state Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and with officials from both Boeing and Microsoft.
As part of her new assignment, Gregoire said she is having many more conversations with the White House, Cabinet officials and congressional leaders these days.
And with her increased visibility, Gregoire said her one-year gig as NGA chair is sure to benefit Washington state.
"No question about it," she said. "I wouldn't have done it in light of all of the issues that I'm facing in my own state, but for the fact I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for my state."
McClatchy Newspapers 2011