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Governors Avoid Federalism Debate in Low-Key Talks

By J. R. Sirkin — July 03, 2019 7 min read


As the nations’ governors concluded their annual winter meeting here last week, a weary Lamar Alexander, chairman of the National Governors’ Association, could afford to be gracious.

Asked about the 34 Democratic governors, who outnumber their Republican counterparts by two to one, Mr. Alexander, the Republican governor of Tennessee, said the Democrats had behaved like “restrained statesmen.”

Indeed, despite the twin threats of federal budget cuts and changes in the nation’s tax code—which could simultaneously reduce the flow of federal funds to the states and limit their ability to pick up the slack by raising taxes—this year’s meeting saw relatively little of the partisan bickering that has marred previous governors’ conclaves.

To a remarkable extent, the governors focused, as Mr. Alexander wanted them to, on self-help exercises, including their joint education initiative, rather than on attacking the policies of a sitting President from Mr. Alexander’s party.

But he governors’ apparent harmony did not necessarily signal unity of purpose.

In an action that symbolized the states’ seeming impotence in countering the Administration’s “New Federalism,” the governors themselves voted down the one major new policy initiative presented here. That proposal would have called on Washington to turn the 9-cent federal gasoline tax over to the states, providing new revenues for added responsibilities.

Focus on Education

Throughout the governors’ three-day conference, Governor Alexander tried to steer debate to what the states could do to help themselves, especially in the field of education.

“We don’t have an agenda of new lectures for the Washington establishment this year,” Mr. Alexander said in his opening press conference. “The reason for us getting together is to be better chief executives.”

He described the N.G.A.'S education initiative, with its state-services focus, as a “perfect example of what governors ought to do.”

“Better schools is perhaps the major domestic issue today,” he said. “It’s at the center of whether we can become competitive in the world market. That shoots it to the top of I the states’ list of priorities.”

Despite proposed federal budget cuts, Mr. Alexander asserted that most states could continue to increase spending for education.

“I don’t think it will make much difference,” he said of the Reagan Administration’s proposed cuts in federal education spending-a view other governors later disputed.

“When you’re talking about the quality of education, little can be done from Washington,” Mr. Alexander said. “Washington has almost nothing to do with better schools.”

Democrats Frustrated

If the relative lull in lobbying for federal programs here represented a triumph of sorts for Mr. Alexander—who incidentally supported the gasoline-tax proposal—it also made for a frustrating week for many Democratic governors. At week’s end, they vented their anger in a pointed caucus statement on the Reagan Administration’s proposed fiscal 1987 budget.

In their statement, the Democrats lashed out at the Administration’s “unprecedented escalation in Pentagon spending,” which they said had undercut “critical investments in our nation’s future.”

But that statement did not approach last year’s face-to-face confrontation at the White House, in which Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, crossed swords with the President over the Administration’s proposal to eliminate the deductibility of state and local taxes.

This year, the governors once again made their obligatory trip to the White House, as well as to Capitol Hill, and they entertained the usual assortment of ranking Congressional committee members and Administration officials.

Individually, several governors, including some Republicans, spoke against the Administration’s proposed fiscal 1987 budget cuts in health and education programs for the poor.

Some, including Republican Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, called for a “more rational approach” to deficit reduction, but their criticism was muted, perhaps in view of the fact that the automatic spending cuts of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law treat the states less harshly than the Administration’s budget proposals.

Few Collective Actions

As a group, the governors resurrected a three-year-old proposal to swap the federal role in education for the states’ share of health and welfare programs—a decidedly one-sided deal for the states—and they reiterated their 1985 statement on the federal deficit, which called for limited military-spending increases and a possible tax hike.

Also, in a letter to Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, they called on the Congress to ease House-passed restrictions on tax-exempt bonds.

In amending several existing N .G.A. policy positions, the governors also called for expanded Medicaid services for the poor, especially pregnant women and infants.

But the governors never really appeared able or willing here to mount effective joint action to resist the Administration’s federalism policies.

The difficulty of their situation was underlined when the mayor of Charleston, S.C., Joseph P. Riley Jr., made an impassioned plea to the members of the governors’ committee on economic development for financial aid, only to be politely rebuffed by Governor Cuomo. The states could not guarantee to pick up local programs eliminated by the federal government, Mr. Cuomo said, if only because it would send the wrong signal to the White House and encourage more cuts.

“In my view, the lesson for states is that the press has just begun,” said Herman B. Leonard, professor of public policy at Harvard University, who also testified before the economic-development committee.

Of what he called Administration efforts to shift. federal responsibilities to the states, Mr. Leonard said in an interview, “It seems to me that not very good politics have been developed to deal with it.”

“I don’t see that the N .G.A. has one view on this,” he said. “Those who oppose the Administration’s policies should develop a serious political rationale for the federal government’s being involved. The old argument—that it has more money—just doesn’t work anymore.”

Federalism Welcomed

According to Mr. Alexander, many governors welcome the greater responsibilities they have inherited as a result of the Administration’s policy shifts.

“For years there has been a long. boring discussion about federalism in Washington and now we have new federalism—a sort of forced federalism,” Mr. Alexander said in his opening press conference.

“Some governors welcome the new responsibilities—most welcome it; some are still wringing their hands over it,” he said.

“By and large, as an association we’re here to make certain that we know what our new responsibilities are going to be. We want to know where the federal government is going so we’ll know what the states need to do.”

Democrats Not So Sure

But while Mr. Alexander said he thought the Reagan Administration was open to a realignment of state and federal responsibilities, Democratic governors said they saw no willingness on the part of the Administration to compromise.

“There are an awful lot of governors saying that the different levels of government should have a sorting out of priorities,” said Gov. Richard D. Lamm of Colorado.

Noting that in Colorado federal education aid accounts for “5 percent of our spending and 38 percent of our paperwork, " Governor Lamm said he approved of a realignment in which Washington would “get out of education altogether.”

“Most governors are philosophically open to a new federalism saying, ‘You take this and well take that.’ But the President doesn’t want that,” he said.

Instead, said Governor Lamm, “the Reagan Administration is using federalism to dump obligations on the states.”

Other Democratic governors agreed.

“There’s no question in my mind as I leave this conference that the national Reagan agenda is to dismantle every domestic program that’s available and shift the money into defense,” said Gov. Toney Anaya of New Mexico. “And at what expense? Education, children and youth, and unwed mothers.”

Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the N.G.A. vice chairman, said the Administration’s proposals to cut Chapter 1 spending and place a cap on Medicaid “imperil our security.”

“We’ve been killing ourselves, a lot of us, to focus on these education issues,” he said. “But we have to pay attention to this budget, because it would essentially paralyze all domestic discretionary spending.”

“If we can alter the attitude of the White House, it will make it easier for the Congress to do its job,” Governor Clinton added.

A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 1986 edition of Education Week


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