New challenges for 21st century

January 02, 2000|By Neal Peirce

ENTERING 2000 and a new century, the 50 states of America seem on a glide path to lasting good times. Their coffers are brimming over. They enjoy virtually full employment. Satisfied constituents. Few political crises.

But are states prepared for the brutal reality globalization will bring us -- growing numbers of smart competitors on any continent, poised to capture our markets by providing better services or more economically priced goods?

The answer, arguably, is "no." Strong, competent state and local government services are vital to most enterprises. But check our 50 states' antiquated local government structures. They have fragmented systems of thousands of local units -- cities, townships, villages, boroughs. We're carrying, in short, 19th-century systems into a demanding cyber-age.

The states could demand that municipalities collaborate regionally, but they don't -- even as a century of competing global regions dawns.

Or take public education, another ultimate state responsibility. We've entered a century in which human skills -- not raw material or accumulated capital, but intelligence and savvy -- will assure strong economies.

But we do little to change lives of dysfunctional families, or to connect them with the exciting opportunities of the New Economy and its technologies. We're letting millions of our children grow up in poverty. Many urban schools suffer cataclysmic dropout rates. Even students from affluent suburban districts routinely fail to match achievement levels of peers in other advanced nations.

State and local tax structures are a tangled mess, so regressive they amplify and perpetuate the gross income differences between our classes. The sales tax, a pillar of most states' systems, may now crumble in the face of e-commerce. But if the states have a backup plan, no one's told us about it.

And then there's stewardship of our land. We've had a half-century of profligate consumption of farm and open space. For a while, even though many cities and older suburbs suffered, we had the space to absorb it all.

But now, with vehicle-miles-driven spiraling upward, and traffic congestion threatening to paralyze us, it's clear our growth patterns are unsustainable.

That means radical policy change. Despite all the "smart growth" talk of the late '90s, only a handful of states have even tried growth management plans. Governors and state legislators remain under heavy highway lobby pressure to finance outer-ring roads that will only feed sprawl and compound traffic congestion.

With good times rolling, achieving change and reform is difficult.

No governor, for example, wants to risk political hara-kiri by suggesting shrinking and merging local governments.

But the climate could be favorable to invent or undergird regional structures (in transportation and environmental quality, for example) that could work around our incredible thicket of local governments. Or to propose state legislation that provides a set of carrots and sticks to get the communities of any region to work together more collaboratively.

In education, consensus is forming on how vital nurturing care and mental stimulation are for infants, getting them ready to learn later in school.

Some progressive governors might start to shift surplus funds to early childhood initiatives. Introduce programs to reduce the "digital divide." Create inducements to get localities to integrate schools with community centers, libraries, health care.

On the sales tax crisis, the time could be at hand for a mega-tradeoff -- eliminating sales taxes, known to be regressive, and replacing them with new or expanded state income taxes. No one likes taxes; some conservatives argue government just wastes resources. Everyone should fight hard for more government efficiency. But let's face it: No community can prosper and compete without quality local services such as fire protection, law enforcement, schools, water systems and so forth.

On growth, the premium has to be on assuring mobility of people and goods so that our metro regions can be globally competitive. States can help by insisting on more compact land use and financing backup transportation systems -- rapid rail between urban centers, exclusive busways and rail within them.

Choice should be the key word. Choice in transportation, so that we're not totally dependent on autos and trucks. And choice in local development -- state-subsidized visualization tools, for example, that actively engage citizens in growth decisions for their own sustainable neighborhoods and regions.

Thinking "outside the box," across subject areas, in new global economic terms, call it what you will, America's state governments face massive challenges as the century begins.

Neal Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

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