The return of the states

The states have made a comeback. They were rocked by the federal budget cuts of 1981 and the economic recession that accompanied those cuts, but the most recently available evidence clearly indicates that the hardest times for the states have been reversed.

They are spending money for new programs as well as supporting many of the programs that were previously funded almost entirely by the federal government.

They are exercising more control than ever before over the programs which pass through the states on their way to their ultimate recipients.

They are the focus of more political activity than at any other time in the last 10 years.

For example, this fall Pennsylvania enacted a $100 million prescription refund program for its senior citizens. This program is in addition to the tax rebates and mass transit subsidies which Pennsylvania already provides for its older adults. The action is even more impressive when it is remembered that in fiscal year '83 the state experienced a $250 million shortfall in its anticipated revenues.

For example, during its most recent legislative session Florida created a $ 100 million grant program to assist cities and counties in building sewage treatment plants. From the 1950s through the mid-1970s the federal government was the primary funding source for building local sewage treatment facilities in this country.

By using more of its own money to fund these projects, Florida has gained more control over a program that is extremely important to its future growth and development.

There are several reasons for the renewed strength of the states which those of us who work in state government have watched develop during the previous year and a half.

First, the same federal budget cuts which sent the states scrambling for alternative revenues led them to find more secure sources of funds.

In two-thirds of the states that meant increased taxes. As the national economy has slowly improved over the last year state revenues have increased. While the rate of increase has been neither uniform in every state nor sufficient to totally overcome the twin ravages of inflation and federal cuts, the general situation is now much better than most people had anticipated it would be.

Second, the rhetoric of New Federalism and the President's proposals to turn over almost total responsibility for major domestic programs to the states caused the states to take defensive measures against what they saw as a frontal attack on their traditional partnership role in the federal system.

In order to protect their positions as partners in a balanced relationship with the national government, they marshaled their forces in Congress and organized their internal political resources.

The result has been to stop the New Federalism ''dead in its tracks.'' But it has also left a legacy of organization, contacts, and successes which state legislatures and governors are currently converting for in-state purposes.

Third, California's Proposition 13 elevated the importance of state elections in the minds of voters all across the country (they saw how the outcomes of those elections could directly affect their pocketbooks).

The trend was reinforced by a weakening of the national parties caused by the growth of PACs and single-issue pressure groups.

The intensity of this renewed involvement in state politics is most dramatically seen in the recent recall of two state legislators in Michigan. Instead of merely complaining about the legislature's passage of an increase in the state income tax, Michigan taxpayers have launched the most determined recall drive since the device was adopted in the states at the turn of the century.

Where are the states going with their rejuvenated strength? If the situation in Pennsylvania can provide any insight, they are taking their responsibility to govern and serve very seriously. This does not mean they will try to go it alone. They know that going it alone is impossible. But leadership will almost certainly come from the states in attacking the common problems we face as a nation.

There are three goals the states are currently working toward.

They are (1) more economic stability through the stimulation of high-tech development and the restoration of a decaying infrastructure; (2) more personal security for vulnerable groups of citizens through additional services for older adults, more protections against criminal activity, and stronger measures to curb family abuse against children and spouses; and (3) upgrading of educational systems through additional requirements for promotion and graduation, and more incentives for retaining better qualified teachers.

To borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, the demise of the states has been greatly exaggerated. Those individuals who might attempt to treat them lightly or high-handedly are in for a rude awakening.

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