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For America’s Political Adults, Look Outside Washington

Three state-level officials demonstrate the characteristics of good governance, without the chaos playing out in the nation’s capital.

Bill Haslam
Former Tennessee Gov. and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam: “I think if you are solving problems, you’re less likely to merely play political games.” (Photo: Republican Governors Association)
Today’s Washington chaos — from the historical ousting of Rep. Kevin McCarthy as House speaker to the propaganda flowing from all sides — is embarrassing and overwhelming to many Americans. However, our founders probably wouldn’t have been surprised because they knew the chaos of human nature quite well.

It was this knowledge which led them to create a separation of powers among the federal branches and to give more powers to state governments than we currently acknowledge or apply. They knew that a powerful central government could cause harm through action, intentions or simple incompetence — which is why they gave the central government very limited powers and encouraged Congress to leave the nation’s capital frequently.

Even today, with a federal government that is intimately involved in everything from health care and education to toilets and lightbulbs, the chaos in Washington is mostly … well, just something people see online. We live our lives, go to work and church and school, and play sports and music and video games. Our daily lives rightly don’t depend on the House of Representatives having a speaker or passing lots of legislation.

Yet it’s very important for us to know the caliber of people we elect to office because they do make policies that impact us at least once a year — on April 15. It’s hard to figure out the quality of federal representatives because of the amount of noise, so we’ve identified three state-level elected officials — genuine political adults — whose time in office has demonstrated three positive characteristics of good governance:

  • Understanding the importance of the office they hold.
  • Respecting the laws and traditions that limit their power.
  • Putting power in the hands of the people.

First up is North Carolina State Treasurer Dale Folwell. He’s worked hard to stabilize and strengthen the state’s pension and health-care systems. He has preserved North Carolina’s AAA bond rating while increasing transparency for taxpayers on the cost of state benefits. Deservedly, Folwell won an award from the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, and holds a monthly teleconference where journalists can ask him anything.

More recently, after announcing his campaign for governor, Folwell rightly rebuked his former Republican colleagues in the Legislature after they passed a provision in the budget shielding themselves from the same kind of records requests that apply to the rest of state government. “When you have integrity not only is it what you do when nobody’s watching, but when you make mistakes you disclose them,” declared Folwell.

Many states and localities shine when it comes to contrasting their budget processes with the profligate spending of Washington. In an interview with American Habits, former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who served previously as mayor of Knoxville, explained that balancing a budget requires good stewardship of taxpayer dollars and forces a more grown-up disposition from lawmakers. “I think if you are solving problems, you’re less likely to merely play political games,” said Haslam, who was recognized as a Governing Public Official of the Year in 2018.

Another example of solid leadership comes from Iowa. Long before her name began coming up as a potential Republican vice presidential candidate, Gov. Kim Reynolds reined in the growth of state spending and created billion-dollar surpluses, and she vows to eliminate the state’s individual income tax. She also signed the Student First Act, a universal school-choice law that gives parents the opportunity to find new educational solutions for their children.

Just as good tax laws keep workers’ money in their hands — instead of being fed to the growing central state or federal government — good laws keep students’ education in the hands of parents. America’s schools have long suffered academically compared to our international counterparts, and the recent social engineering raises other concerns which parents must address in their own families.

The officials described here are just three of the thousands of great policymakers across the country who succeed because they are close to the people and have common interests with them. Returning more power to states and localities is not just good government; it also keeps the people from simply being disengaged spectators.

Ray Nothstine is the Future of Freedom Fellow at the State Policy Network and a senior editor and writer. He manages and edits American Habits, a new publication on federalism. Dustin Siggins is a former political journalist and founder of the public relations firm Proven Media Solutions.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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