Obama and the States

President Bush promised governors a close relationship and didn't deliver. Can states trust the reassuring words of his successor?
January 1, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

Eight years ago this month, a newly inaugurated George W. Bush invited the nation's governors to a roundtable discussion at the White House to assure them that he planned an aggressive transfer of federal power to the states. He announced the formation of a "new federalism initiative" to streamline the granting of federal waivers so that states had more flexibility in administering federal programs.

A few days later, he spoke to the National Conference of State Legislatures, pledging that "this administration understands the importance of local control of schools, that we don't believe in the federalization of the public school system, that one size does not fit all when it comes to education."

For anyone who cared about allowing states and localities to share in the governing of the nation, it was a hopeful time. Even Democratic governors concerned about the long-term effect of massive federal tax cuts were impressed with the commitment of this new president, fresh from the Texas governorship, to partnering with the states, rather than just ordering them around.

Eight years later, those events seem almost other-worldly. No matter how history judges the Bush administration on its foreign or domestic policies, there is little question that Bush will rank as one of the most hostile of recent presidents in his dealings with states, cities and counties. The administration has mandated more, preempted more and run roughshod over state initiatives that didn't conform to its own ideology. Governors of both parties have expressed frustration in dealing with it. Local leaders are, if anything, more critical.

Even on education, the administration quickly violated the spirit and letter of the president's pledge and pushed through the No Child Left Behind Act, which not only prescribed exactly what local schools had to do but offered few resources to do it. A Republican Congress later mandated, without hearings or a vote, what effectively would be a national identification card program that states must administer and pay for. The Environmental Protection Agency blocked California and 16 other states from controlling greenhouse-gas emissions from cars. And on it went.

Last month, governors gathered in Philadelphia's Independence Hall to meet with the newest president-elect, and again were heartened by strong words of support and a willingness to listen.

So what can we believe? What can states and localities expect from an Obama administration, and just as important, a new Congress? The first signs are heartening. The just-forming administration has bought the idea that one of the most effective ways to stabilize the economy is through massive aid to states and localities to support infrastructure projects and to shore up Medicaid. Estimates on the amount range upwards to $200 billion, or 10 times what the federal government spent on aid to states in the last economic downturn six years ago.

Beyond that, though, is the sense that this administration intends to modify or reverse policies that many states found offensive in the Bush years. It's hard to imagine that the NCLB education law, which has little support even among many Republicans, will survive in its present form. The common assumption is that the "Real ID" card plan either will be federally subsidized or dropped altogether.

In the case of environmental and energy policy, we are likely to see outright reversals. States that have fought with the feds for years over carbon dioxide emissions probably will find that their adversary suddenly has become their leader. The same with states that have sought to increase health coverage for children, an effort twice vetoed by President Bush. And the Obama administration likely will reverse Bush's vetoes of legislation encouraging embryonic stem cell research. A number of states have launched their own research initiatives in the absence of a federal effort.

Most state and local leaders will welcome a new sense of collaboration rather than confrontation with the feds. But it might be a good idea not to assume too much. When it comes to federal-state relations, the only safe assumption is that nothing will go quite the way either side expects.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus | pharkness@governing.com