For the nation's 50 governors, this is something of a gloomy time. Most of their states have a bad case of the financial miseries, leaving them the chilling choice between slashing away at popular programs or raising taxes.

Time was when governors could have asked Washington for a handout, but not anymore. Not only does President Bush have no spare cash, but his new budget is looking at a deficit of at least $318 billion, and he already is asking Congress to transfer between $15 billion and $21 billion in federal programs to the hard-pressed states.This jockeying between Washington and the state capitals has been going on since the nation was born, of course, but it's getting worse and it's eating away at the balanced federalism that is one of America's greatest strengths. If the nation cannot agree on which level of government should finance which kinds of programs, and make revenues mesh with spending directives, it then can expect more squabbling, more waste, more intrusion of partisan politics and a continued erosion of basic programs.

Financial pressures on most states have soared in recent years, and the national economic downturn is far from the only culprit. In several expensive areas such as medical care, Washington has routinely imposed new spending requirements on the states - but without providing the money needed to pay the bills.

Most of the governors, meeting in Washington this week, are upset by so much mandated spending, and no wonder. It demands more state spending but offers no compensating help, and this clearly is a formula for greater trouble down the road.

Ronald Reagan, during his presidency, made a big deal out of turning over federal programs to the states, and some of this experiment made sense. Local control allows flexibility; programs can be adapted to meet specific local needs. Governors understandably want a say in how some basic government programs are shaped - provided they can be adequately financed at the state level.

But the states can't always do the job. In addition, some bedrock programs - welfare assistance, medical care for the indigent and aged, some education aid, big-city transit networks, the national highway system - cost far more than most states can afford on their own. If Washington insists on sloughing off such spending, it could lead to crushing state tax burdens, a drastic decline in program quality, or both.

The governors make another telling point about Washington's habit of freezing out access to cash-rich federal trust funds. These funds, collected from sources such as fuel taxes and user fees, were intended to maintain facilities such as highways, transit systems and airports.

Washington should pay serious heed to what the governors are saying. After all, it's these state executives who represent some of the nation's most innovative thinking on education, welfare reform, medical care and other critical issues.

But they cannot function if Congress is going to keep adding more unfinanced spending mandates or if presidents continue to dump on the states some important but costly programs that would be better based in Washington.