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In Terms of Federalism, the Action’s in the States

Our federalism expert makes predictions about climate and the culture wars and how states will take the lead in policy in 2024. He also owns up to what he got right — and wrong — over the past year.

Ryan Downs plugs in his Tesla at a charging station in the Foundry District in Fort Worth on Monday, March 14, 2022. According to a Consumer Reports study from 2020, electric vehicles cost less to fuel and are cheaper to repair and maintain than comparable gasoline-powered models.
The Biden administration wants electric vehicles to make up half of car sales by 2030, but that plan depends on action from the states.
Amanda McCoy/TNS
Yogi Berra told us that “it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” (Or at least he's said to have said that.) Now it’s time to saw off the limb behind me in making predictions for 2024.

If you want to get a peek at the mega issues in domestic policy, go to the capital. State capital, that is. In the 1960s, the action was in the cities, with the Great Society. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was at the federal level, with welfare reform and more money for Medicaid. But the states are squeezing their local governments, and the feds are preoccupied with symbolic fights. So pick your favorite topic. The action will be in state capitals.

The future of America’s national policy on electric vehicles hangs on the states. The Biden administration’s goal is for EVs to make up half of all car sales by 2030. But hitting that target depends on getting enough fast chargers out there so drivers don’t have to worry about getting stuck. That in turn depends on how fast the states spend the $5 billion that the feds allocated for a national charging network — not to mention the outcome of the election, since a Republican president might back away from both the goal and the grants. Everyone — especially the auto industry — will be warily watching whether drivers feel comfortable about plugging in their EVs.

Self-driving cars will be back, on more roads in more cities. It wasn’t a good end-of-year news cycle for the self-driving car industry, with accidents accumulating and wary cities worrying. But they’ll be back. It’s a movement that can’t be stopped.

Climate change will continue to simmer. I’ve learned my lesson in predicting just where the big issues of climate change will percolate. But it’s inevitable that they will rear their head somewhere. Forecasters are predicting a 90 percent chance of a big El Niño winter and this will fuel warmer temperatures.

At the center of the culture wars will be abortion and immigration. Abortion has already become a flashpoint in the battles between the left and the right. Immigration is sure to elbow its way again into the presidential campaign. The Constitution is pretty clear on the issue: It says nothing about it. Texas has already defied the federal government in putting large buoys across a stretch of the Rio Grande to keep migrants out. The state has already threatened to arrest migrants and has strung razor wire in an ongoing border dispute with Mexico. Meanwhile, the number of abortions in New Mexico has increased 220 percent since 2020, after Texas banned almost all abortions — New Mexico has a busy abortion clinic just a ride-share away from El Paso. And governors are jostling over whether they can bus thousands more migrants to other states.

Flip a coin — will 2024’s big federalism issues be decided from the top down (in the presidential campaign and by the new Congress) or from the bottom up (by restive state and local governments)? My money is on the bottom-up side of the coin. The feds will follow the state and local lead, through battle-tested politics.

This time last year, I blatantly ignored Yogi Berra's apparent advice and predicted some big trends in federalism for 2023. Here’s what I wrote, and here’s how I’d grade myself.

“COVID-19 will surge, but this time it’s bringing its friends. Exhausted local public health officials will need a new long-term plan for future issues — and they won’t get much help from Washington.”

I got this one right. In November, a new COVID-19 variant appeared and public health officials worried that few Americans were taking it seriously. Meanwhile, it brought a new friend: RSV, or the super-contagious respiratory syncytial virus. Embattled state and local public health officials left their jobs in alarming numbers. But this brewing crisis isn’t getting much attention otherwise. Grade: A-

“The East gets wetter, especially from hurricanes,” I wrote, and, “The West gets drier, especially with water crises.” Well, will you give me some credit for getting the problem right even though the location was wrong? Much of the southern and eastern United States is struggling with serious drought, and unrelenting river flooding hit the West Coast. The real weather lesson of the last year was two big hurricanes, Idalia in Florida and Hilary in Mexico. That’s the story I should have predicted — it’s the one with huge implications for the impact of future storms. Grade: D.

“Immigration heats up — again. Republicans will turn up the heat on immigration, and Texas’ Greg Abbott and Florida’s Ron DeSantis will jostle for the spotlight.” I nailed this one. Grade: A

I’ll be back in a year to see if I got any of my new predictions right.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.
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