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Getting the Blues | The Nation

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Getting the Blues

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In the winter and early spring of 2001, when Dick Cheney was telling Californians that their sky-high electricity bills were their own tree-hugging fault, you might have thought the Administration was just covering for Enron CEO Ken Lay and George W. Bush's other Texas energy friends and, as an added bonus, sticking it to the lotus-eaters on the Left Coast who'd given Al Gore his million-vote California majority.

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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.

But that was just the paranoia of the innocent. In the past year, as the nation's deficit-ridden states were pleading for federal help, Washington was telling them all to drop dead--reserving harshest treatment for the "blues," meaning the liberal states that voted for Democrats. While California was not alone, it was certainly the biggest target, as the only large state with a Democratic governor, Democratic legislature and a Congressional delegation dominated (32-to-20) by Democrats. "They view California," said a Washington lobbyist, "as a foreign land."

Some of that you can ascribe to the Administration's efforts to suck every possible dollar of the cost of Bush's tax cuts from the states. But behind the fiscal policies--the unfunded mandates (i.e., new federal requirements without funds to help states comply); the cost of NCLB, Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education law; the childcare expenses made necessary by the Administration's proposed new federal work rules for welfare recipients--there seemed to be an ideological thrust, bordering on vindictiveness, aimed at teaching the liberal states a lesson.

Late in April, as states like Oregon were preparing to close schools weeks before the end of the term, and others were dumping hundreds of thousands off the Medicaid rolls, laying off cops and raising college tuition to close a collective two-year deficit estimated by the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) at upwards of $100 billion, Grover Norquist said he'd like to see a state or two go bankrupt.

Norquist, who runs the conservative Americans for Tax Reform and heads what Bill Moyers has called a politburo of conservative strategy, is also joined at the hip with Karl Rove, the President's political brain and one of his chief policy advisers. "I hope a state has real trouble getting its act together," Norquist told the New York Times's David Firestone. "We need a state to be a bad example, so that the others will start to make the serious decisions they need to get out of this mess." When Norquist speaks on such issues, you're never sure whether he's the ventriloquist or Rove's talking dog.

Brian Riedl, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, put it more mildly, but it amounted to the same thing. "Deficits," he said, "provide states with a golden opportunity to examine their budgets and reduce wasteful and ineffective spending, which helps them keep taxes low and aid the economic recovery." Lay off those teachers, kick poor working mothers off the rolls of those who get help with childcare, close a few more parks. Norquist's and Riedl's remarks were generally directed at "states," but it didn't take much parsing to conclude that they weren't referring to Nebraska or Alabama. It was the liberal states--the Democratic states with the relatively generous social welfare programs and the more progressive tax rates--that they were talking about.

Forget that Washington, with Bush's multitrillion-dollar tax cuts, is running deficits that are proportionally larger than those of the states; forget that at least part of the states' problems resulted not just from their unchecked boom-era spending and from a recession compounded by misbegotten federal economic policies but from their own tax cuts, which could have come straight out of Norquist's playbook. Both New York and California would have $13-$14 billion more in annual revenues had they not cut their own taxes during the mid- and late 1990s. Which is to say that the states' problems are also compounded by Norquist's White House friends and his allies in the Republican Congress.

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.)

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.

But the list of particulars runs far beyond energy.

§ House approval (still pending in the Senate) of the Administration's tougher work rules under TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Those requirements--to work forty hours a week rather than the current thirty--would be virtually impossible to meet for workers in the low-wage restaurant and hotel jobs in which many ex-welfare recipients find themselves. That would create a need not only for more state-funded public service jobs at a time when states are laying off thousands of workers but for billions in additional state childcare money. In California alone, according to the state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, those changes would cost $2.8 billion over the next five years. If the rules go into effect, State Senator Raymond Meier of New York, a Republican, told a House committee, "it will force states to reallocate TANF funding away from creative and innovative services [to get people off welfare] and exacerbate the difficulties states face in providing childcare to those on welfare and poor working families."

§ A gap of at least $6 billion annually between what Bush promised and Congress authorized under NCLB to pay for the mandated education programs--"highly qualified" teachers in every classroom by 2005-06, intensive reading programs for at-risk children and the required yearly progress in test scores. One researcher in Vermont calculated that it would take more than $84 billion to comply with NCLB annual progress requirements. Bush has proposed $1 billion. Every state, from New Hampshire to Washington, is feeling that pinch; New Hampshire's school administrators say that for every dollar the state gets from the Feds, it has to kick in $7 to meet the NCLB requirements.

§ Ongoing underfunding of the costs of homeland security. According to federal formulas, the $2 billion that Congress is now providing gives states like Wyoming and South Dakota--those magnets for terrorists--between eight and ten times as much per resident as California or New York. And even that money hardly compensates for cuts in other federal law-enforcement assistance. A new study conducted for the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that tight state and local budgets had sharply reduced police manpower in many places and that federal funding for state and local security over the next five years fell short by some $98 billion--a huge figure but, in the words of study adviser Richard Clarke, "decimal dust" compared with the Defense Department budget.

§ The effects of the first round of Bush tax cuts, which Representative John Spratt of South Carolina, the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, says has cost the states about $75 billion. The Bush Administration, he told the Times, is "just indifferent to the problem they're causing."

Those discrepancies are partly the result of formulas--and the clout of senators--that always give small states proportionally more money than populous states. But in this Administration and Congress, there's special relish in whacking the liberal states.

Maybe you can write off the Administration's double standard in agreeing to buy back oil leases off the Florida coast last year, but refusing to do the same in California. Since Governor Jeb Bush, the President's brother, was running for re-election, call that politics as usual. But what are we to make of the Justice Department's unprecedented decision to join auto makers (in this case, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler) in their lawsuit attacking state emission control regulations, as the Feds did last year in California?

What of changed EPA rules on so-called new source review, which, to please energy industry contributors--who kicked in some $44 million to the Bush campaign--allow factories, refineries and power plants to expand and build without installing the most advanced emission controls? Those changes came in the face of vehement protests and lawsuits from the Northeastern states, where ecosystems are being damaged by acid rain created by pollution from Midwestern power plants.

What of the move to allow the Pentagon, in the name of national defense, to get around all federal toxic-dumping rules on its military installations, despite protests from agencies like the California EPA, and regardless of the fact that a lot of the toxics leach into neighboring wells and groundwater? According to a study for the Environmental Working Group conducted by Texas Tech University, perchlorate, a rocket fuel component that can depress thyroid function and impede development in fetuses and newborn babies, has already contaminated water in nineteen states and has been found in lettuce at four times the level the EPA regards as safe in drinking water.

And what of the intense, relentless campaign launched by Attorney General John Ashcroft and drug czar John Walters to gut voter-enacted state medical marijuana laws? At a time when federal law-enforcement authorities are supposedly stretched thin by terrorism threats, what perverse passion would drive them to devote precious investigative and prosecutorial resources to that dubious purpose? Eight states, including Arizona, have approved such laws in the past seven years, all but one by voter initiative, but it's been California and Californians that have been virtually the sole target.

The same Justice Department vehemence has been directed toward eviscerating Oregon's doctor-assisted-suicide law, approved twice by voters in that state. That attempt, still blocked in the courts, has implications far beyond assisted suicide, since it could subject any physician using morphine or other drugs to relieve the pain of cancer or other diseases in terminally ill patients to prosecution or denial of the right to prescribe, which is tantamount to a denial of the right to practice.

Ashcroft says that federal Drug Enforcement Administration operatives can easily discern the "important medical, ethical and legal distinctions between intentionally causing a patient's death and providing sufficient dosages of pain medication necessary to eliminate or alleviate pain." But as any doctor can tell you, that's baloney. The very process of alleviating pain may hasten death.

What's particularly notable about Ashcroft's crusade is its intrusion into an area constitutionally reserved to the states by an Administration professing to honor states' rights headed by a former governor who has promised to be sensitive to the problems of the states.

In February, Ashcroft, a longtime friend of the gun lobby, threatened to criminally prosecute California officials for what he claims is illegal use of a federal data bank to track down illegal gun users. Ashcroft had also threatened to go after Georgia officials for denying gun permits to people that the federal data bank showed had been arrested for felonies but not convicted. Georgia complied, and according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, seventeen or eighteen people facing felony charges are now given Georgia gun permits daily.

You can get endless arguments about the motives. Is the White House's ugly treatment of the states simply the result of political expedience by an Administration that even opponents like Matsui say is highly astute politically, or is there an unbending ideological streak that, in ways never before attempted, seeks to use federal muscle to beat back liberalism in the states with nearly the same vehemence and determination it applies to federal policy?

Through the past two and a half years, the Administration, often flying the flag of the terrorism war, has altered federal policy in ways that couldn't have been imagined before the 2000 election--in its radical aggrandizement of the power to investigate, wiretap and detain suspects; in the concomitant rollback of civil liberties; in its tolerance for polluters and offshore tax dodges; in its multitrillion-dollar tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans; in its rollback of countless social programs.

But the attempt, often successful, to extend those efforts into the states, to use local cops to search out undocumented immigrants for detention, to go after liberal state laws--auto emission controls, medical marijuana, doctor-assisted suicide, welfare and childcare--is unprecedented. Without fanfare or discussion, the Administration appears to be putting the screws to liberal state programs with the same determination it is applying to things like tax cuts (which, of course, are the key to all other domestic policy).

Consistent with that effort, in March the White House decided no longer to publish a key document called Budget Information for States, which reported annually how much states receive under each federal program, and thus made it easy for local officials and advocacy groups to keep track of how their programs were treated. Eliminating the book, said a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, will eliminate the cost of the paper and production of the volume. How frugal. Who would have thought that it would be a Republican--and an ex-governor to boot--who'd bring federalism to its knees?

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