Tag Archives: state governments

State Budget Crises Casualty: The National Governor’s Association Meeting

One casualty of the state budget crises is the low attendance of governors at their annual meeting in Mississippi. NPR reports that Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, chairman of the National Governors Association, opted to stay home to work out the state’s budget stalemate, and because, as of today, state employees are not being paid.

He was not the only governor who stayed home. Only about half showed up.

As NPR notes, with states facing a $200 billion revenue shortfall, this year’s budget crises are certain to continue into the next fiscal year.

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Is the U.S. Senate Obsolete?

Syndicated columnist Neal Pierce has been writing about state and local affairs since at lease the 1970s. In a recent column, he asks, “Are State Governments Obsolete?” It might have been more appropriate to ask whether state governments actually exist — at least in the traditional constitutional sense. Blessed by the Supreme Court and other judicial rulings, state governments have become administrative appendages of the federal government.

In one area after another in the twentieth century — matters of transportation, public health, land use control, education, wildlife management, etc. — the federal government assumed powers that had traditionally been reserved to the states. States might still have an administrative role, but they are now working under a very tight federal leash.

The sweeping environmental laws of the 1970s shifted control over clean air and water to the federal government. The states were, to be sure, left to administer air and water pollution laws day to day but under federally approved programs, leaving real control in federal hands. The Endangered Species Act not only federalized significant parts of wildlife management but also asserted federal authority over large areas of state and local land use. No Child Left Behind moved a large step towards the full federalization of education in the United States.

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The Enduring Relevance of Federalism

Last week in The New York Times, Tom Brokaw wrote an op-ed questioning the enduring validity of the system of federalism that has been in place for over 200 years. He writes, “Every state and every region in the country is stuck with some form of anachronistic and expensive local government structure that dates to horse-drawn wagons, family farms, and small-town convenience.” Is this an accurate depiction, or is it the case that in many instances of failed local government, overly burdensome state and federal governments are preventing the enactment of localized solutions?

Two Brookings Institution scholars, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, responded to Brokaw with a letter to the editor, supporting his claim that in order for the federal-state-local relationship to remain functional, all three levels of government need to have the flexibility to adapt to changing demographics and technologies. Katz and Bradley point out that, where once most people lived and worked in small towns, today the workforce is heavily concentrated in metropolitan areas.  (Katz, Bradley, and others at Brookings have previously written about this issue.)

In their letter, however, Katz and Bradley point out that in some cities federalism is functioning well where proximate municipalities are working together to address the common needs of their residents.  They cite Denver, Louisville, and Portland as cities that have successfully “developed transportation and land-use strategies that reflect the true metropolitan scope of economic and social life.” The cooperation of authorities throughout these metropolitan regions demonstrates that some issues relating to city life are common across the areas surrounding cities, and attempting to handle these issues locally would lead to poorly integrated solutions.

While transit issues are an obvious area in which in makes sense for townships within a metropolis to collaborate, current work of the Neighborhood Development Department in Boston shows us that city governance can implement successful programs that function at the most localized level. The NDD is taking innovative, localized action against the current mortgage foreclosure crisis. Although the foreclosure rate in the city has risen dramatically over the past years, it is doing much better than other cities of comparable size, according to American Public Media’s Marketplace.

Why is this? The city has found that the appropriate level to deal with this challenge is the block level, offering assistance on a case-by-case basis because foreclosures affect each block differently. Mayor Thomas Menino developed a Foreclosure Intervention Team to provide mortgage counseling to potential home buyers and assistance available to homeowners in danger of foreclosure.  In places where rates remain high despite these efforts, the city is providing special services such as increased police presence to monitor vacant buildings and street improvements to make these areas attractive to new buyers or tenants.

Boston’s Neighborhood Development Department demonstrates the beauty of federalism in a world that is constantly changing.  All policy issues are different and need to be dealt with accordingly; although our basic system of governance has not changed since the nation’s founding, it does remain adaptable to the needs of the day, contrary to Brokaw’s assertion.  To make the best possible use of taxpayers’ resources, state governments should allow their municipalities the freedom to take advantage of economies of scale where they exist and to allow for creative, location-specific solutions where top-down management would be stifling.