MADISON, Wis. — The legislative session ahead promises to be busy.
There will be plenty of big-ticket, high-profile policy debates devouring the headlines. Health care. Education. Transportation.
But another key initiative, for the most part off the radar, could change states’ increasingly subordinate role in the U.S. system of federalism.
Wisconsin, again, could lead the way to reform.
“With recent changes at the federal level, we have a unique opportunity to have more authority delegated back to the states, especially regarding the delivery of public benefit programs,” state Sen. Chris Kapenga wrote in a recent newsletter to constituents.
The Delafield Republican recently was named chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Benefits, Licensing and State-Federal Relations.
While the committee may not draw as much attention as Transportation or the powerful budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, the panel expects to play a crucial part in advocating the powers of the Tenth Amendment to what is expected to be a more receptive Congress.
Wisconsin’s Republican-dominated congressional delegation has long led the group of conservatives that want the federal government to check its insatiable hunger for expanded powers — particularly those “not delegated to the United States by the Constitution.”
With a Republican-dominated Congress and an incoming Republican president signaling an interest in rebalancing the balance of power, Kapenga says now is the time for the federal government to relinquish powers “reserved to the states respectively, or to the people,” as the Tenth Amendment states.
“The key to our society is the federalism balance between the federal government and state government, and the Founding Fathers’ original intent was to have that balance in place because they saw the danger of an overly powerful national and federal government,” Kapenga told Wisconsin Watchdog recently on the Vicki McKenna Show. “We’re going to focus in on rebalancing that power.”
Gov. Scott Walker last month urged President-elect Donald Trump to restore state control and ease “incessant federal overreach.”
“The question is not what functions the federal government should give back to the states, but what functions should the federal government have in the first place,” Walker wrote in a letter to Trump.
“The federal government was originally created to be a small, central government of limited powers, with everything else left to the states. Through years of federal overreach, this model has been turned on its head, and now is the time to write the ship,” Walker added. “Power flows from the people to the government, not the other way around.”
Wisconsin conservatives have some powerful allies in their corner. Kenosha native Reince Priebus, the outgoing Republican National Committee chairman and White House chief of staff, is among Trump’s top advisers. Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, has long sought to rework the federal-state relationship, particularly as it relates to taxpayer burdens.
Ryan, for instance, has urged that funding for Medicaid and other social service programs be delivered through block grants to the states.
Walker recently told MacIver News Service that states can administer programs “more effectively, more efficiently and definitely in a way that’s more accountable.”
“But I wouldn’t stop at Medicaid — I’d do transportation, I’d do workforce investment,” the Republican governor said. “Heck, I’d do education funding. I’d rather spend the dollar here in Wisconsin on my schools as opposed to sending it to Washington, and I think most people, regardless of party, would prefer to do that, too.”
The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has been critical of Ryan’s reform ideas.
“As we explained when [Ryan] made essentially the same proposal last year, this would very likely increase poverty and hardship, not reduce them,” wrote CBPP President Robert Greenstein in December 2015.
“Ryan said that the federal block grant funds would have to be used for the poor. But that wouldn’t prevent states and localities from substituting some of these funds for state and local funds now used for some of the same purposes and diverting those state and local funds to other uses, such as plugging budget holes,” Greenstein added. “That’s what happened under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, despite Congress’ efforts to prevent it.”
Conservatives argue that the federal government has forced state and local governments to pay billions of dollars in unfunded mandates.
State Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, recently received an invitation that he “couldn’t turn down” from Congress to address the burdens of federal funding mandates.
“Davis-Bacon has been shown to inflate the cost of federally funded construction projects considerably above what the free market would dictate, significantly increasing federal spending,” the Wisconsin lawmaker wrote.
The Labor Department, in applying the law, jacks up wages on average 22 percent higher than the market rate for similar projects, according to a study from the Beacon Hill Institute. Davis-Bacon wages cost taxpayers more than $1 billion per year in addition to the $100 million in annual government administrative costs, according to the Heritage Foundation.
“It’s protecting a small number of folks, in this case the unions, from fair competition for taxpayer dollars,” Jacque told Wisconsin Watchdog.
Kapenga, who has been out front in Wisconsin’s “Article V” efforts in the pursuit of a federal balanced budget amendment, said the time for reforming the federal-state relationship is now. There may never be a better time, the lawmaker said, because Congress seems to finally be listening to the states.
“I came in six or seven years ago. To my knowledge, I don’t recall that happening in the recent past. It’s exciting to see that,” Kapenga said.