States looking for ways to reclaim lost powers

June 12, 1995|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Correspondent

PHOENIX, ARIZ. — An article in The Sun yesterday incorrectly named the federal law that requires states to test for pesticides in drinking water. The law is the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The Sun regrets the error.

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Distributing Christmas food packages to 20,000 prisoners became a logistical headache for Sam Lewis. But when the Arizona prisons chief tried to end the traditional treats, a federal judge barred him from doing so.

At the request of prisoners, the judge has ordered Mr. Lewis to provide 4,000 typewriters for inmates, keep their hot pots plugged in and purchase $500,000 worth of new legal books for the prison law libraries.


Mr. Lewis says he has had enough of this "contemptuous disregard for state authority," this micromanagement by judicial


So has the state of Arizona. Fed up with a federal government they find exasperatingly intrusive and excessively powerful, state officials have banked $1 million to challenge a plethora of federal mandates and regulations as well as the court orders affecting the state prisons.

It's a one-of-a-kind fund that typifies attempts by an increasing number of states to reclaim power from Uncle Sam.

Before 1960, two federal mandates existed. The number is hovering near 100, according to figures quoted by the Council of State Governments. The mandates touch everything from the highways we build to the wildlife we protect to the medical care we underwrite for the poor.

From Utah to Virginia, 14 states have supported convening a "Conference of the States" to find ways to restore state powers. Six more have passed the conference resolution in at least one legislative chamber.

"The balance between the federal government and state governments as enunciated in the Constitution has become so far out of whack," said Bob Silvanik, director of policy and program development at the Council of State Governments, the Kentucky-based group promoting the states' conference. "The intensity has increased so much in recent years, and there's beginning to be a feeling that we have to take some significant action."

Some states aren't waiting for a quorum of their peers.

* Illinois is fighting the National Voter Registration Act, a federal mandate to register voters by mail that would cost state taxpayers about $20 million.

* Colorado balked at complying with a federal vehicle-emissions testing program and is using a new state law to do battle.

* Arizona created the Constitutional Defense Council and set its sights on restoring the prison chief's autonomy and contesting clear air standards.

There are other signs of discontent. Congressional delegations are being summoned to State Houses to discuss unfunded mandates. New federal regulations have cost states and localities from $8.9 billion to $12.7 billion between 1983 and 1990, according to congressional budget figures.

Thirty-five counties in Western states have approved legislation asserting ownership of federal lands. A group of local sheriffs has refused to enforce the so-called Brady bill, the nation's handgun control law that requires local police to conduct background checks on prospective gun buyers.

Constitutional issues

Power and money may be at the heart of this tug-of-war, but the conflict involves philosophical and historical issues as well. Although the 10th Amendment to the Constitution reserves for the states all powers not expressly given to the federal government, the country's experience has been otherwise.

The erosion of states' rights, some activists say, began in the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The federal government's authority expanded with the social and civil rights programs of Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society in the 1960s. Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan reopened the debate on the balance of power with his New Federalism.

That debate continues today.

"The country, in the 1930s, was ready to hand over a significant amount of power to Washington to solve the ills in this country. . . . We have the same problems, only worse, and the power is gone from the localities to a centralized place," said state Sen. Stanley O. Barnes, Jr., of Phoenix. "Now the state of Arizona is tTC ready to take that power back."

As Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson prepared his first state budget in 1990, he realized the restrictions placed on his state dollars. "Why do they call me governor?" Mr. Nelson said he asked his staff. "Why don't they call me administrator? Nebraska seems to more a branch of the federal government than a freestanding sovereign state."

As an example, the governor cited the federal Clean Water Act. No one is against clean drinking water, Mr. Nelson said. But the regulations require every state to test for the same possible contaminants in the same manner without regard for local differences.

Why should Nebraska have to test for a pesticide used to grow pineapples when the prickly-skinned fruit has never been grown there, Mr. Nelson asked.

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