The Katrina Conundrum: Balancing the State-Federal Relationship

By: - October 13, 2005 12:00 am

Most meteorologists will argue that Hurricane Katrina fizzled out somewhere over the Mississippi Valley while Hurricane Rita lingered drenching the Southeast. However, many political meteorologists will argue that Katrina and Rita are still gaining strength as the eyes of the two storms align over Washington, D.C.

The double-punch that the Gulf Coast took from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is likely to go down in history books as the worst series of natural disasters this country has ever seen. And Katrina and Rita will likely change the relationship between the state and federal governments for years to come.

The relationship between the states and the federal government has been tenuous at best over the past several years. Federal initiatives such as No Child Left Behind, the REAL ID Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Help America Vote Act have eroded state authority and left states to pick up a billion per year tab.

As the cleanup in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina continues and Hurricane Rita begins, the magnitude of the damage and destruction is becoming clearer. Not since the Great Depression and the New Deal has this country embarked on an economic recovery effort on such a grand scale. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal expanded federal authority in order to regulate the economy and provide social services during a bleak era in United States’ history.

The New Deal, World War II and later federal initiatives had the effect of aggregating power to the federal government at the expense of the states. Since the 1980s, though, there has been a concerted and somewhat successful effort to restore a healthy balance between the state and federal governments, to reap the advantages of policy innovation and responsiveness inherent in governments closer to the people.

The enactment of the Unfunded Mandate Reform Act of 1995 (UMRA) temporarily curtailed federal cost shifts to the states and provided members of Congress with a tool to use to fight against colleagues who attempt to pass the buck to the states. Additionally, block grant programs such as welfare reform, transportation funding and social services have given states an unprecedented amount of flexibility in implementing federal programs. Such flexibility has fostered unbridled creativity and innovation and led to an increased rate of success in the various programs.

The Katrina and Rita reconstruction efforts pose a serious threat to the progress made in federalism over the past 25 years. As the costs to rebuild the Gulf States continue to rise, so too will the reliance on the resources of the federal government — just as it did during the Great Depression.

Congress is already considering preempting state authority in several areas. The Gasoline for America’s Security Act of 2005 sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton of Texas was introduced in response to the rise in gas prices in the wake of Katrina. The bill preempts states’ authority to license domestic oil refineries, reduces a state’s choice in alternative fuels used to meet clean-air standards and preempts state laws on the ability of individuals to file claims in state courts over refinery licensing and pipeline siting.

Katrina is also affecting state budget authority. The White House’s emergency funding proposal for schools that are providing services to hurricane evacuees would send money straight to local school districts, bypassing the state budget process. In many situations, the local school districts would profit from this scenario as many have already received emergency funding from their state.

The challenge for the country during this difficult time is to strike a balanced, effective and intergovernmental approach to rebuild the Gulf Coast. As always, state lawmakers stand at the ready to work with the federal and local counterparts to sort through the myriad of issues left in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

William T. Pound is the executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization based in Denver that provides research and policy assistance for legislators and staffs of the states, commonwealths and territories.

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