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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New Federalism

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth's Northwest bureau reporter Terry FitzPatrick reports on increased efforts to get Federal government programs to return power to the state level. Opponents to this trend recount that it is due to states’ historic unwillingness to change that forces the Federal government to enact such tough, and often broad, measures.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Many members of Congress these days are calling for the Federal Government to hand over some of its responsibilities to the states. Welfare, Medicare, environmental regulation. Advocates say these are some areas of governance that should be reformed by giving more power to the state houses. Later this month, a group of state officials will meet to draft plans to give states greater control. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick takes a look at what might be at stake for environmental protection.

FITZPATRICK: To Governor Ben Nelson of Nebraska, EPA testing procedures for drinking water are a prime example of what's wrong with Federal control of the environment. The EPA requires Nebraska and other states to test for a long list of water polluting chemicals, including some that Nelson says aren't used in his state. He calls this a "one size fits all" approach that's inefficient and unfair.

NELSON: That's really why I think so many people are anxious to get the Federal Government off their backs. There's no doubt that there is a national interest in our having safe drinking water nationwide. But how we go about doing that ought to be left up to individual states.

FITZPATRICK: As chairman of the Natural Resources Committee for the National Governor's Association, Nelson hears frequent criticism about Washington's heavy hand. California, for example, has complained about restrictions on discharging sewage into the ocean. Illinois objects to carpool requirements designed to fight smog. Utah is protesting limits for off-road vehicles in the desert. These kinds of grievances will likely come up at the so-called Federalism Summit in Cincinnati. The meeting is being organized by the Governor's Association, the Council of State Governments, the Conference of State Legislatures, and other groups. Ten governors and 150 legislators are expected to attend. Governor Nelson says the environment will be among the most important topics. That's because many officials feel that inflexible Federal regulations are crippling local economies.

NELSON: There's nothing wrong with having the Federal Government have control. It's the way in which the control is exercised. If Congress were to pass broad national standards for the environment and leave it up to the states to determine how we're going to meet those standards, that would be okay.

FITZPATRICK: Nelson, a Democrat, calls the summit a moderate by partisan effort to fine-tune the relationship between Washington and the states. However, the call to increase the power of the states is prompting more radical proposals from some Republicans. Arizona's governor, for example, has signed a bill defying Federal and international bans on the manufacture of ozone-depleting chemicals. He's also suing the EPA to end the Federal regulation of water quality in his state. Jerry Taylor studies natural resource issues for the Cato Institute, a Libertarian research center in Washington.

TAYLOR: The angrier people become at Washington, the harder it is to sustain a frankly massive federal command and control regiment. It puts the entire 20 years of environmental status quo in play. And I think it puts it in serious jeopardy.

FITZPATRICK: Conservatives like Taylor say there is a Federal role on issues like global warming, or international fishing treaties. But Taylor says the Federal government should stop micro-managing the environment inside the United States.

TAYLOR: Seventy or 80% of what the Federal Government goes to protect the environment are essentially actions that city councilmen ought to take. For example, there's nothing that's more local than taking out the trash. Yet the Federal Government has thousands and thousands of pages about what kind of design parameters for disposal facilities there ought to be. And on and on and on. I mean, there's simply no reason for the Federal Government to get into local issues like that.

FITZPATRICK: Some officials feel the transfer of power should go beyond the state level, down to city and county government. But many environmentalists oppose the transfer of Federal control, and worry that if the US Government doesn't protect the environment, nobody will. Historically, says Carl Gawill of the Wilderness Society, states, counties, and cities have neglected the environment in their push for economic development.

GAWILL: The Federal Government did get involved in the 60s and 70s because the states couldn't clean up their act. We had hundreds of thousands of miles of unreclaimed strip mines in the east. We had rivers that would catch on fire. The Federal Government had to come in because the states would compete with each other to see who could attract business.

FITZPATRICK: Environmentalists say air and water pollution affect entire regions, not just individual states. And they contend many states would be unwilling or unable to protect the environment. Only 9 states have full-time legislatures with large staffs. Several states are struggling under tax initiatives that limit how much money they can spend, or how quickly they can raise their budgets. And when it comes to managing public land, says Gawill, some states are required to put profit before protection.

GAWILL: Many of the western states, particularly, their state constitutions require them to have maximum economic return from their land. They don't look at the whole array of different recreational, wildlife, and other purposes, and by their own constitutions they can't do that.

FITZPATRICK: Despite these drawbacks, Governor Nelson of Nebraska is certain the states are up to the job of managing the nation's environment. States have been working with Federal managers to implement national environmental regulations for 2 decades. Federal intervention got the ball rolling, Nelson says, but now it's time for Washington to scale back.

NELSON: There were times when it was important that they take over certain responsibilities. They were ahead of the curve with the environment back in 1970, ahead of the states. But that was then and this is now. We've caught up.

FITZPATRICK: It's unclear what specific proposals will come out of the Federalism summit. But Nelson hopes the meeting will boost the effort to decentralize control of the environment. Whatever the governors propose may find a receptive ear on Capitol Hill. Many members of Congress seem convinced that when it comes to the environment, as with other issues, a government which is closest to the people governs best. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick reporting.



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