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It's still the economy. . .

I recently had lunch with three of my cousins, all career women working in different fields. The talk turned to the war in Iraq and how proud we all were of the job our troops had done. Despite the victory in Iraq, we agreed the story of the year will most likely be the struggling U.S. economy. Why?

One cousin works for a large pharmaceutical company, which recently merged with another firm. In 37 years with the company she has never seen wide-scale layoffs. In fact, employees have been put to work painting and gardening to keep them working through slow periods in the past. Now they are nervously awaiting word of what they expect will be sweeping layoffs. My cousin will probably retire before things get much worse.

The second cousin is an officer in a major international financial services firm. She has 16 years on the job, including a recent five-year stint overseas. She has been back in the U.S. for nearly 18 months and jokes that her working hours are so insane that she has yet to paint her condo or reclaim the furniture sent to storage when she left. Her company will be reducing its domestic work force by about 10 percent, first by giving every employee the opportunity to take a generous separation package, then resorting to involuntary layoffs if necessary. This is the first time she has witnessed layoffs within her company and she expects her 40-person group will be cut by at least five people. I think she is a bit tempted to take the package since she would then have time to get that painting done!

The third cousin is the director of an inner-city daycare center, which serves the poorest and most at-risk children you can imagine. She has spent the last few weeks at State House hearings trying to prevent threatened cuts to the state's contribution to her already under-funded program. She too could be facing a layoff notice if the cuts occur.

My contribution to the discussion was more positive. AGA has had a good year with sponsorships, exhibits and advertising at our two national conferences surpassing the record set in 2002. We take this as a sign that the economy is recovering from the downturn that occurred after September 11 and that companies are recommitting resources to important marketing efforts. After lunch with my cousins, I am not so sure that what we are seeing is indicative of any overall upswing.

After all, state governments are facing their worst fiscal crises since World War II, and cities rely heavily on states for aid. Revenues have dropped and expenses-such as those incurred for homeland security-have skyrocketed. Many states operate under balanced budget laws that prohibit deficit spending, which leads to the types of cuts my cousin, the daycare director, fears most-basic services to society's most needy members.

More than half of AGA's members work for state or local governments. In this budget climate, employers are less supportive than they'd like to be of employee involvement in professional organizations. At AGA we are focusing our attention on these individual members and customers, while closely watching the economic situation in general and the state fiscal condition in particular. We will address these challenges in upcoming issues, and I encourage you to send me your thoughts on the subject.

This is the last issue featuring Charles W. Culkin Jr., CGFM, at the top of our masthead as publisher. He will end his tenure as AGA's executive director in July to retire to his home in Florida. On page 8 you will find an article detailing his many contributions to AGA and the profession. On an entirely personal note, I know that when I look back on my years as a young mother and professional, I will remember that it was Charlie who gave me the opportunity of a lifetime-to have the job I loved, to work from home no matter where I lived and to be there for my children when they needed me most. I will miss the daily interaction with Charlie, who always provided a steady hand on the rudder as we navigated our way through each and every challenge that came our way. As they say in the Navy, I wish him fair winds and following seas.