Oregon Blazes the Trail Toward New Federalism

State freed to run programs without so much Washington red tape

RESPONSIBILITY. Accountability. Flexibility. Results.

``Give us the tools,'' elected officials around the country are saying to Washington, ``and we can make government work.''

Cynics might say this is just another variation on the historic attitude of state and local leaders toward the federal government: ``Give us the money and leave us alone.''

But with a White House trying to ``reinvent government'' and with a newly Republican Congress eager to promote efficiency and give more power to the states (most of which now are headed by GOP governors), it may be a new-old idea whose time has come.

It came to Oregon last week when the federal government signed a ``memorandum of understanding'' with the state designed to strip the bureaucratic red tape and cut the strings that have tied up many government programs.

Under what's called the ``Oregon Option,'' state officials will be able to negotiate with federal agencies for program funding without the typical hassle and micro-managing that drives states crazy.

In return, Oregon will demonstrate that it has set goals and can achieve results in such areas as health care, education and job training, and welfare reform.

Meeting with Vice President Al Gore Jr. and Clinton Cabinet secretaries, Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts (D) said the agreement recognizes that ``the categories, red tape, boxes, bells, and whistles attached to every federal program and every federal dollar were not conducive to positive results or smart government.''

``It is all about empowering communities to solve their own problems,'' said Mr. Gore, who called the Oregon plan ``a new federal-state-local partnership that could serve as a model for improvements nationwide.''

Oregon was chosen because the state has been developing a set of ``benchmarks'' to achieve specific results over a wide range of public-policy areas: teen pregnancy rates, percentage of 11th graders who demonstrate specified reading skills, miles of rivers and streams meeting clean-water standards, percentage of Oregonians who exceed average US per capita income, crime rates, and housing affordability.

In all, there are 272 state benchmarks, 43 of them classified as high-priority. These are reviewed and adjusted when the state legislature meets every two years. The program enjoys bipartisan political support, and it is used to make budget decisions.

Described as ``an experimental commonwealth and laboratory of reform'' by the Almanac of American Politics, Oregon over the years has led the way on such things as the ballot initiative, referendum, and statewide land-use planning. It has recently been noted for its public education-reform measures and (with special dispensation from the federal government) its efforts to prioritize Medicaid procedures so that more poor people have access to health care.

Barbara Dyer, director of the Alliance for Redesigning Government, lauds Oregon for its ``outcomes-driven government ... its very solid strategic planning effort that puts a real emphasis on achieving something people care about as opposed to procedures.''

Formed about a year ago as part of the National Academy of Public Administration, the Alliance is a bipartisan network of elected officials, administrators, and academics spotlighting state and local efforts to make government more productive and efficient.

Neal Pearce, contributing editor of National Journal magazine and an expert on how government works, notes that Minnesota, Maine, Hawaii, Florida, Texas, and Ohio are among other states following Oregon's lead.

Such programs involving the ``devolution'' of government responsibility to state and local levels are a response to what Andy Bane of the Center for the New West in Denver calls ``federal mission creep.'' This includes the ``unfunded federal mandates'' criticized by a growing number of mayors and governors.

They also are closely related to the federal effort to make government more accountable. Congress last year passed (and President Clinton signed) the Government Performance and Results Act.

Authored by Sen. William Roth (R) of Delaware, the new law requires federal agencies to come up with five-year plans including measurable long-term goals and performance standards.

``Programs will be held accountable for meeting specified goals for such measures as error rates, response times, citizen satisfaction, reduction in the incidence of a problem, and cost-per-unit of result, to give but a few examples,'' Senator Roth said earlier this year. Roth will chair the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in the new Congress.

Among the first agencies to implement the law are the Social Security Administration, the FBI's Organized Crime/Drug Program, the Child Support Enforcement Program, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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