The Pain Principle

When state legislators move up to the U.S. Congress, they seem to forget their roots.
January 2005
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

Here's a puzzler: Carl Tubbesing, head of governmental affairs for the National Conference of State Legislatures, points out that more than half the U.S. House of Representatives is made up of former state legislators; in the U.S. Senate, it's nearly half.

It's puzzling because the way Congress has been behaving toward states lately, you'd think most of Congress was born and raised on Capitol Hill. (See "The Washington Offensive" on page 26 for some of the gory details.)

One recent example of this "never look back" syndrome is the inclusion in the giant, end-of-the-year federal budget bill of a provision that seeks to usurp state regulatory control over where liquefied natural gas terminals can be built. Such terminals have proved controversial, so siting them has been anything but a simple affair.

The language calling for federal control over gas-facility siting was inserted in the omnibus budget bill by Republican senator and energy committee chairman Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico. He noted that when it comes to high-stakes energy policy, "these facilities need one clear process for review, approval and siting decisions, a process that also looks at the national public interest and not just the interests of one state."

Domenici might be forgiven this lapse in deference to a level of governance closer to the people inasmuch as he is one of a minority in Congress who never served in a state legislature. Except that, in the late 1960s he was elected to the Albuquerque city council, eventually rising to mayor. So presumably he was on the receiving end of what both the federal and state governments were dishing out.

In the late 1960s, however, what the federal government was dishing out was money. Federal grants to states and localities were on the rise, and Congress hadn't yet figured out the convenience of dumping responsibility without cash. So perhaps Mr. Domenici remembers Congress as a benevolent, generous grand uncle, always there with a lollipop or two to hand out to the kids.

But how to explain the behavior of the more recent arrivals to Congress? Most of them came to Washington long after the days of revenue sharing and things like 80/20 federal-state funded environmental grants programs. Maybe it's that what politicians learn in state legislatures is not how painful it is to be on the receiving end of preemption and mandates, but how much fun and satisfaction there is in inflicting that pain on others.

Take just a handful of recent examples in state legislatures across the country. In New York, there has been a longstanding and local government-friendly policy of handing over a healthy portion of the proceeds of all speeding tickets written by state police to the local government in which the infraction took place. The proceeds from this policy added up to millions a year for local governments, a lot of the money going to smaller, rural jurisdictions, which helped take significant pressure off property taxes. But with the state now in perpetual budget crisis, Governor George Pataki (a former mayor of Peekskill, mind you) included a provision in this year's budget that took all that money and put it in the state's coffers, tossing local governments a $5-per-ticket "service charge" for adjudication.

On the other coast, California's legislature last session wandered into territory typically reserved to local government control: zoning and land-use planning. Lawmakers in Sacramento passed a bill that applied a uniform state standard, overriding local rules and regulations controlling the construction of second dwellings on single parcels of land.

In between New York and California, the associations representing Iowa counties and cities have spent the last several legislative sessions in acrimonious battles with state lawmakers over attempts to pass local property tax caps and rollbacks.

In just about any state, there are examples of legislatures abusing their local government partners in some fashion or another. But localities are fierce fighters when it comes to defending their turf-- they have to be. Which is why the New York ticket money grab is headed for a likely legislative rollback in the wake of white-hot local government anger and loud opposition. In California, localities helped persuade Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to nix the zoning bill. The Terminator noted in his veto letter: "As a strong proponent of local control, I believe that government is most responsive and accountable to people when it is close to the people." In Iowa, county and municipal officials have battled the state legislature to a stalemate, such that the legislature has, at least for the moment, agreed to stop trying to shove property tax control measures down localities' throats and instead sit down and talk about it.

So, what's a frustrated New York, California or Iowa state legislator to do? Well, that's obvious: run for Congress. It's clearly what they've been training for all their political lives.