By Frank Keegan | State Budget Solutions
CHICAGO — When U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, of Illinois, tried to fire up a ballroom full of state legislators here Tuesday morning, he used the phrase “states’ rights.”
It popped up a few other times as the National Conference of State Legislatures met for its annual “Build Strong States” summit. The only problem: There is no such thing as “states’ rights.”
Neither states nor any other government has any rights. The only thing governments have is power.
And those who govern universally abuse those powers to the degree they are absolute.
The words “right” or “rights” appear in the Constitution and amendments 15 times, never in association with “state,” and 13 of those times guarantee the rights of the people while restricting power of government to infringe them.
The 10th Amendment contains one of 36 mentions in the Constitution of “power” or “powers,” reserving to the states or the people those not explicitly enumerated.
Our Founding Fathers intentionally reserved powers to the states as a sovereign check and balance against the powers of the new federal government.
That sovereignty now is forfeit. The creeping force of federal funding and mandates has stolen state sovereignty like a thief in the night. Our self-inflicted Great Recession merely put it right out in the open where none can deny.
States are so dependent on federal money they are powerless to resist. The subject of state sovereignty, federal mandates, and loss of funding for highways, bridges, education, Medicaid, unemployment insurance and other essential government services is a recurring theme here. So is the impact on states of direct federal spending cuts to reduce the deficit.
So far, no one has mentioned a series of Government Accountability Office studies showing the fiscal catastrophe politicians have inflicted on us and the difficulty states face in meeting federal funds matching requirements.
Exactly two years ago, GAO reported that “state and municipal governments will steadily decline” unless they immediately imposed real spending cuts equivalent to 12.3 percent a year “each and every year for 50 years.”
The purpose of the study was to determine how “fiscal pressures could affect delivery of intergovernmental programs.” That means a lot of the federal money states and municipalities get requires them to spend matching state and local tax dollars.
State and local politicians did not impose sufficient real spending cuts. So when GAO updated the study this year, that annual cut requirement had increased to 12.7 percent.
The original GAO study concluded that “… challenges cannot be met by shifting burdens from one level of government to another.”
It means states have lost the power to control their fiscal destinies.
Despite the recent U.S. Supreme Court health-care law decision, federal money still wields overwhelming power when it comes to most aspects of state government operations.
That question first went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1819 in McCulloch v. Maryland, when states first found out they generally lose.
Chief Justice John Marshall wrote: “The Government of the Union, though limited in its powers, is supreme within its sphere of action, and its laws, when made in pursuance of the Constitution, form the supreme law of the land.”
Its sphere of action includes dolling out money to states.
As a result, state sovereignty has been pawned in truly bipartisan squandering by reckless leaders through at least a decade.
Now governors and legislators dance to the federal fiscal tune and grovel for alms.
Nowhere is that more evident than here in Chicago at the ironically titled “Build Strong States” summit.
Frank Keegan is editor of Statebudgetsolutions.org a project of sunshinereview.org. The State Budget Solutions Project is non-partisan, positive, pro-reform, proactive and anchored in fundamental-systemic solutions. The goal is to successfully engage political journalists/bloggers, state officials and opinion leaders in a new way of thinking about state government and budgets, fundamental reforms, transparency and accountability.