Getting the Blues | The Nation


Getting the Blues

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Nor, of course, is it just the blue states that are being hit. Altogether, according to the NCSL, as of mid-April unfunded and underfunded mandates imposed on state and local governments totaled between $23.5 billion and $82.5 billion a year. When Democrats and Republican moderates like Maine's Olympia Snowe pressured Congress in May to add a $20 billion, two-year state fiscal-assistance package to Bush's $800 billion tax cut, therefore, it covered less than half of the lowest estimate of just the unfunded-mandate part of the gap, itself a fraction of a long list of other federal impositions. (And because the new federal tax cuts include cuts in dividend and capital gains tax rates, they also make equities more attractive and thus raise the cost to states and municipalities of the bonds they issue.)

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Peter Schrag
Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor and columnist for the Sacramento Bee, has been writing for The Nation for...

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As thirty-six states contemplate privatization measures, public schools are on the defensive.

The fiscal assistance package prompted NCSL to issue a handout praising Congress for the help. But privately, state officials said it was far too little: NCSL itself had wanted $40 billion. The Democratic Governors' Association wanted $63 billion in aid and infrastructure investments. Among the most effective stimulus packages are strong state programs in public works, education and social services.

Lobbyists for state organizations in Washington will also tell you privately that the White House has "thoroughly intimidated" Republican governors--and some Democrats as well. "The Republicans are so disciplined," said a frustrated lobbyist for a Democratic governor. "The White House has imposed enormous pressure on the GOP governors, which is why you don't see the National Governors Association making much noise." Snowe, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter and other Republican moderates, who've been savagely attacked by conservative organizations like the Club for Growth, know the price of even minor departures from the White House line.

You hear the same thing from people in the nonpartisan organizations, though none of them want to be identified either. This, said one, "is the most political administration I've seen in thirty years. If you're part of the team, you get access, but once you leave the reservation, that's it. Anyone who's not on board is done, and anything that shows blue is suspect." Norquist and fellow conservatives are using the long arms of the White House and Congress to discipline the states.

Even before Bush was elected, according to people like Tim Ransdell, who runs the California Institute, a nonpartisan research organization supplying data to that state's Congressional delegation, the structure of federal formulas made California and the Northeastern states the big "donor states"--those that paid more in federal taxes than they got back in federal programs and contracts. For every dollar California pays in taxes, it gets back 82 cents; for every dollar New Jersey pays, it gets back 67 cents; for every dollar Montana pays, it gets back $1.75.

Bush-era unfunded mandates and impositions, like expenses for homeland security, however, have been particularly hard on the so-called blue states. In part that's because they tend to be the states with the poorer people, the larger welfare and Medicaid loads, and, not coincidentally, the tougher environmental regulations, none of them beloved by this Administration.

But of course these are also the states that voted for Gore and thus, with the exception of the states that may be in play in 2004, find no particular hospitality in the Bush Administration. According to Representative Bob Matsui, a Democrat, and others in the California delegation, even staunch California Republicans, like Representative David Dreier, head of California's GOP caucus, have a hard time getting access to the White House. "Dreier's staff," said a staff member for another Californian, "feel like stepchildren. The White House pays attention to swing states like Pennsylvania and Illinois, but California"--where Bush was trounced in 2000 and where Gray Davis won re-election as governor in 2002 despite a major White House effort to beat him--"has been humiliating for Rove. He ended with egg on his face.... They're not going to do a damn thing for us."

In April 2001, after California's misbegotten energy deregulation scheme opened the state to big-time price gouging by Enron and other Texas energy marketers, Cheney met with Congress members from the Northwest, but according to Representative Jay Inslee of Washington, only on condition that Californians be kept out of the meeting. If California hadn't thought it could conserve its way out of its energy needs, Cheney said, it wouldn't have blocked the construction of new power plants. It could expect no regulatory help from Washington--and it got none until Senator James Jeffords quit the GOP and control of the Senate changed hands in May 2001.

Cheney's charge was a bum rap. It was the energy producers' own caution about market prospects that kept them from proposing new California plants; it was a Republican governor who, in 1996, approved California's wrongheaded deregulation scheme; and, as the country later learned, it was market manipulation, abetted by the failure of both the state and federal governments to act, that helped drive energy prices through the roof.

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