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Obama pledges help for states

President-elect Barack Obama assured governors of financially strapped states that "help is on the way," Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear said Tuesday.

Beshear, attending the National Governors Association meeting in Philadelphia, said Obama told the nation's governors that a financial stimulus package is in the works for states.

The governor also said he invited the president-elect to visit Kentucky, particularly next February in conjunction with the bicentennial celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday.

"He did indicate a desire to be in Kentucky and felt like that was an interesting prospect," Beshear said.

Obama last visited the state in August 2007.

Speaking to a mix of Democratic and Republican governors, Obama said his administration "does not intend to delay in getting you the help that we need."

The president-elect has set a goal of saving or creating 2.5 million jobs to boost the economy, which experts say has been in recession for the past year. His aides and congressional leaders have been discussing the outlines of a measure that could exceed $500 billion over two years. Congress wants to have it ready for his signature shortly after his Jan. 20 inauguration.

Incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told reporters that, in a private portion of the meeting, Obama and Republican and Democratic governors agreed that the measure must focus heavily on money for infrastructure as well as bureaucratic reforms to make it easier to complete programs without having to cut through piles of red tape.

"The top priority is to invest in these areas," Emanuel said, listing roads, bridges, high-speed rail, water-treatment systems, schools, medical information technology, broadband networks, transportation systems and "green" technology.

"The governors see that as essential to their own economic recovery in their states, and we see it as essential to the economic recovery of the country," he said.

But Emanuel was non-committal on whether the legislation would contain exactly what the governors seek — some $136 billion more for infrastructure projects and at least $40 billion to temporarily increase the federal government's contribution to the Medicaid program for the poor and disabled.

"We're going to review all that," Emanuel said.

The measure is expected to blend money for those priorities with tax cuts, a temporary increase in food stamp payments, investments in renewable energy projects and other "green jobs" initiatives.

Beshear's comments about his trip to Philadelphia were made in a telephone conference call with reporters from across the state.

He said he spoke personally two to three times for about five to 10 minutes to Obama on Monday night with about 20 other Democratic governors.

Besides talking to Obama on Monday night, Beshear said, he discussed the country's economic crisis Tuesday morning with Vice President-elect Joe Biden and several members of Obama's staff.

"The clear message that they gave to us on both occasions is that help is on the way, that they fully appreciate where states are in this crisis and they know that the federal government is going to have to partner with the states in order for all of our people in this country to pull through and to come out on the other side of this recession," Beshear said.

The governor is expected to unveil a plan in coming weeks to address a $456.1 million shortfall in the state budget for this fiscal year, which ends next June 30. State agencies have until Friday to tell the governor how they would deal with a 4 percent budget cut.

Beshear said he is setting up a meeting with state Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, and other legislative leaders to discuss the shortfall.

The governor said he gave Obama a letter that emphasized the need to support programs that provide assistance to vulnerable populations.

In the letter, Beshear specifically requested:

■ Increased match rates for Medicaid to help states meet the needs of the increasing numbers eligible for health care services.

■ Grants for state unemployment insurance programs, which have seen their coffers dwindle in recent months as the number of residents seeking benefits skyrocketed.

■ Funding for infrastructure projects that could be quickly started to generate work in the construction and road-building industries.

■ A direct infusion of cash for state governments, similar to aid provided in the 2002 and 2003 recessions, which alleviated cuts to education and some social programs.

There was discussion by governors that Obama might ask Congress to pass the package in time for him to sign it into law when he takes office Jan. 20, Beshear said.

The president-elect said at least 41 states are likely to face budget shortfalls this year or next.

"Jobs are being cut," he said. "Programs for the needy are at risk. Libraries are being closed. Historic sites are being closed."