WASHINGTON Utah Gov. Olene Walker said that as she was eating dinner at the same White House table with President Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, "I kept pinching myself to see if it was real."
With the governors of Maine and Wisconsin also by her side, "We had a rousing table. We really had a good time," she said about the dinner and a concert by Natalie Cole that Bush had Sunday for all governors during their annual winter meetings in Washington.
"All of a sudden it hit me that I was sitting there with the Cabinet and the governors really the top policy-makers in the country," she said.
But Walker shook off any signs of being star-struck to dive into questions with the administration on Sunday and Monday about Utah issues and even popped briefly into the national media spotlight.
After White House meetings Monday, the National Governors Association sent the newest governors out to talk to the media about it so Walker, Schwarzenegger and others faced national reporters. When Schwarzenegger tired of fielding questions about gay marriage, he suggested reporters ask another governor.
"So they asked me," Walker recounted.
She found that Utah's conservative reputation preceded her. When asked if her state would support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, "I just said, 'I'm from Utah' and they all laughed."
She added to the laughter of the reporters, "You know in Utah we believe in traditional marriage between man and woman. And someone said, 'Well, what about your mayor in Salt Lake? He wants gay marriages.' I said we still allow diversity of opinion."
Walker said she also received important assurances from the administration about resolving problems Utah has with the "No Child Left Behind Act," Medicaid, with high numbers of National Guard activations and other issues.
The No Child Left Behind Act was a center of controversy among governors Monday after Bush told them, "I'm going to vigorously defend No Child Left Behind because I know in my heart of hearts it's the absolute right role for the federal government to provide money but insist upon results."
The Utah House attracted national attention recently when it passed legislation saying Utah would only implement as much of that act as the federal government funds. The Utah Senate has yet to act on it. However, Walker said Monday she supports the act and Bush because administration officials "stressed they would work with us with flexibility sufficient to solve our individual problems."
She said that includes relaxing some problematic requirements for non-English-speaking and special-education students and willingness to fix snags in definitions for "quality teachers" that rural districts cannot achieve.
She added that the bill the Legislature is considering to ban implementing unfunded portions of that law is "a little unrealistic because there are so many federal laws that are unfunded we would run into problems in court with that language."
Walker said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson also pledged to work to resolve problems Utah has with rules that could cut some health funding in schools and for Native Americans.
She said Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge promised to look more into the controversial MATRIX program to collect personal information on residents for law enforcement.
Also, she received assurances that the Pentagon will take steps not to activate too many National Guard units at a time from any state.
Walker said Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told governors he was amazed that "one state had 75 percent of their troops deployed at one time." She added, "Of course, that was Utah."
She said Blum promised to work to ensure no more than 25 percent of a state's National Guard troops are deployed at a time and to ensure they will know how long the deployment will last to allow for planning.
Walker also had dinner with another Cabinet member Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt, whose resignation as Utah governor allowed Walker to become his replacement.
E-mail: [email protected]