Uppity Governors

January 03, 1995|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Imagine the governors of 50 states climbing the steps of the U.S. Capitol, announcing that they represent the American people as much as Congress, and then presenting a petition demanding that Washington start dictating less and sharing power more.

Nebraska's Democratic Gov. Ben Nelson hopes it could happen by 1996, raising the issue of American federalism to high visibility for the presidential election season.

With little public notice, Governor Nelson and his Republican counterpart from Utah, Gov. Mike Leavitt, have been pushing an effort to convene a Conference of the States by mid-1995 in Philadelphia. For precedent, they look back to a conference of the states in 1786, which James Madison supported, laying the groundwork for the Constitutional Convention the next year.

Back then, the issue was a weak national government. Today, as Governors Nelson and Leavitt see it, the problem is exactly the opposite: An arrogant federal establishment loads the states with expensive ''unfunded mandates'' in every area from Medicaid regulations to special access ramps for the handicapped to such absurdities as requiring mainland states to test water supplies for chemicals that are only sprayed on pineapples in Hawaii.

The federal government, as they see it, has become an outmoded ''command and control'' bureaucracy, almost paralyzed by the bulk of its mammoth rules and regulations, unwilling to let states commingle federal and state funds in responding quickly or efficiently to changing conditions.

The governors are angry that Congress has treated the states as just another special-interest lobby, not a partner. And now their alarm level is rising rapidly with fear that the new Republican Congress will propose a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution without protections against future Congresses dumping massive fiscal responsibilities on the states and their taxpayers.

The Council of State Governments has just endorsed the Nelson-Leavitt push. First every legislature will be asked to tTC approve a resolution of participation in a Conference of the States, agreeing to send a delegation of the governor and four legislators -- one Republican and one Democrat from each house -- to sessions tentatively set for Philadelphia in mid-1995.

The conference will try to write a States' Petition to Congress, seeking ratification by the legislatures in early 1996. If a large majority approve, the governors would then be set for their 1996 policy assault on Congress and the presidential elections.

When the conference idea first surfaced last summer, it had the earmarks of a conservative, mostly Republican and Western, agenda. But the sponsors have now made it clear they want to focus on broad federal-system issues. They're specifically excluding such ideologically infused issues as abortion, gun control and immigration.

The Council of State Governments' endorsement signaled mainstream support, and backing from leaders of the National Governors' Association and National Conference of State Legislatures seems to be in the offing.

But the full thrust of this '90s effort to revamp federalism is still murky. To raise their bargaining power with Washington, for example, some governors have talked of a constitutional amendment to allow three-quarters of the states to nullify acts of Congress. Governor Leavitt acknowledges, however, ''it would have to be a terrible act for that many states to act in concert.''

The states' new aggressiveness might frighten Congress out of writing any balanced-budget amendment that fails to take account of state fears. As for mandates, a law requiring Washington to pay for any new ones it votes is already promised by the congressional Republicans. But the states could try to broaden the impact -- maybe even make the law retroactive to mandates approved in earlier years.

Two vital challenges for next year's Conference of the States haven't even surfaced in the early discussions. First, will the conference engage the ''sorting out'' issue -- which level of government ought to be primarily responsible for what, from education to transportation to health, and how the tax responsibility should be shared? And second, what about the states' responsibilities to their own localities and metropolitan regions?

''Sorting out'' was discussed but never resolved during the early Reagan years. As for state-local relations, the issue isn't just the obvious -- states agreeing to impose fewer unfunded mandates on their own cities and counties. The issue is also whether states will see the imperative of devolving programs and collaborative decision-making to their metro regions. These are the citi- states, the economic powerhouses, the natural labor markets and environmental basins whose success or failure will determine how entire states fare in the new global order.

A coherent new set of governmental relationships in America would have to address broader sorting-out and metropolitan issues. Are the states up to thinking that broadly? Watch 1995 for an answer.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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