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When federal government fails, states must take the lead

February 04, 2007|by TIM ROWLAND

I've always appreciated state legislatures - as a source of amusement, if nothing else.

What's not to like about political grandstanding, nuclear blowups over issues that amount to nothing and bills to codify an official state dinosaur. Like amateur improv nights, it was just good clean, if not terribly effective, fun.

And you never had to worry that things would get too out-of-whack, because the adult, the federal government, was always there to step in on important matters - from civil rights to clean air - and break up the ruckus if it threatened to get out of hand.

Threats to withhold federal dollars from states that were slow to get with the program were the ultimate in state-legislature attitude adjustments.

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If anything, the feds were guilty of overreaching under a Constitution that is circumspect of centralized power. Washington would justify these forays into state affairs by invoking what was known in Capitol Hill circles as the "Louisiana Rule."

That is, while most states might be counted upon to do the right thing, there would always be a few states that had to be led kicking and screaming into modern times.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's progressive and widely praised - even among Washington County's Republican delegation - State of the State address this week represented something of a shift and a building block of a national trend.

This trend most closely resembles the role reversal in families where the child becomes the adult, performing everyday chores for the dysfunctional parent.

As the war in Iraq has sapped considerable energy, money and attention from the federal larder, domestic issues have been cast adrift. Hurricane Katrina was only the most visible and egregious example of a federal government out of touch with its own people.

But where role-reversal is bad for families, it can be good for governments.

In fact, state predominance probably more closely coincides with the Founding Fathers' intentions. And as far back as 1890, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis described state governments as laboratories of democracy:

"It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country," he wrote in an, unfortunately, dissenting opinion.

Now, governors of both parties from Massachusetts to California, having wearied of federal inaction, are stepping up to address issues such as health care, the environment and education.

O'Malley is probably correct in calling health care "a battle of partial victories," and not all of these victories will be achieved by one single state. States will try different tactics, then look across state lines to see what's succeeding elsewhere.

In fact, only after states began taking the lead and making the federal government look inept by comparison, did the administration decide to join the party.

Nor did O'Malley mince words about schools. What most euphemistically refer to as "portable classrooms," the new governor tartly called "temporary learning shacks." TLS. I like that.

And it dramatizes the difference between the theory and reality of No Child Left Behind, which I've become convinced is just a name to make us think the feds are on the educational ball when they're not.

No Child Left Behind does nothing about the TLS problem or anything else that requires funding. The thinking behind it may be nice and educators have been slow to criticize it because any attention given to education is often seen as good attention.

But to be blunt, No Child Left Behind supposes that every child can succeed with relative equality, and that simply isn't so. No Child Left Behind too closely resembles No Child Gets Ahead, in my view.

Of course we've heard compelling speeches before, replete with calls for civility and bipartisanship. Then about 30 seconds after the speech, the glow wears off and it's back to the business of sniping and obstruction on both sides of the aisle.

So we'll see. Robert Ehrlich was a governor with a lot of good ideas and one particularly bad one: That preserving political manhood trumped any measure of compromise.

O'Malley's plan of putting what's "doable" first and reserving hot-button issues for later in the session is smart, and a lesson learned from previous Democratic governors who would toss something like "assault weapons ban" on the front burner and poison the rest of the session.

Of course, as some members of our delegation have already noted, it's easy to talk about spending first and revenues second. The mini property tax revolt that swept the state last year demonstrated the low flash point for revenue raising measures that aren't balanced on the backs of, say, the players of slot machines.

So we'll see. If nothing else, it's nice to know that at least one week of the General Assembly's 90-day session went well. And that the mood in Annapolis is not one of sitting back and waiting for the federal government to try to do things right.

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