WASHINGTON—Governors frustrated by the prospect of $85 billion in across-the-board federal spending cuts set to kick in March 1 have made the "F-word" their term of choice at the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association.
That word, of course, is "flexibility."
"We believe in what we call 'flexible federalism,'" said Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, who chairs the NGA. "That's a strong cooperative relationship between the states and the federal government that solves problems at all levels."
He added, "We know that cuts are coming, but we also don't want to suffer disproportionally. We want to have some input on what that looks like."
Barring an agreement between Congress and the White House before March 1, the federal government will begin a process known as the "sequester," shaving about $1.2 trillion, or 2.5 percent, off the budget over the next decade.
Governors say they accept that they will receive fewer resources from the feds as a result, but they want to soften the blow by having more freedom in choosing how to use the more limited federal dollars. The scope of the struggle for power between the national government and the states is wide in general, ranging from whether states should be able to use federal transportation dollars on bike paths to how they should implement provisions of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
The desire for flexibility is shared among the governors across both party and ideological lines. As a group, they argue that if the federal government were to loosen the mandates and rules controlling federal grants and cooperative programs, events like the sequester wouldn't have nearly as much of a bite.
"It's wreaking havoc upon the states and our state budgets," said Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican."Give us some leeway."
The call for breathing room, however, appears to be falling on deaf ears in Washington. Fallin took her concerns directly to the White House during a meeting with President Barack Obama Saturday, she said, but Obama did not express openness to the proposals.
"He said that was an area where he was less inclined to work with the governors," Fallin said.
Many state lawmakers are still shaping their budgets for the next year, a complicated process made more difficult by the fiscal uncertainty. Between the "fiscal cliff," the sequester and other you-can't-make-this-stuff-up crises coming from the nation's capital, the states are left merely guessing how much they can depend on the government for support. It also doesn't help that the federal government has been running without a traditional budget since the first year of the Obama presidency.
The cycle of governing through last-minute deals has left even staunch supporters of the president frustrated.
"It is literally impossible for us to meet our necessary requirements of balancing our budgets and putting our programs and projects together if we are living under an uncertainty with respect to whether or not our federal dollars are going to be there," said Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat. "We don't have a budget from the United Sates of America!"
It's almost as if they really just want to use the other F-word.