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The federal-state levee dance, with Gordon Lloyd (San Francisco Chronicle) June 11, 2006

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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The latest political dance craze is the federalism shuffle. Like the disco moves of the ’70s, all it requires is a quick step back or to the side, accompanied by a lot of finger-pointing. You saw it in Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as federal and state officials clumsily danced around responsibility for disaster response, with state and local fingers pointing to Washington, while the feds responded that the state had not officially called them in. Amid reports that California’s levees may be right behind Louisiana’s in vulnerability, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Bush are performing their own federalism shuffle.

When the president visited California, the governor stepped up his insistence that the federal government provide funding to repair the state’s levees. Experienced with the dance, the president stepped back, declining to pick up the tab but offering to cut through federal red tape. Now, potentially stepping on each other’s toes, California representatives in Congress seek federal money for levee repair while the governor pursues state funding through a November ballot measure.

So whose responsibility is it to repair California’s levees?

The answer requires a little history of the federalism dance. The Constitution, seeking to knit together 13 independent states, was drafted to provide that all powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states. No doubt levees would have been the responsibility of states for at least the first 150 years of the republic.

But then along came President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, which created a host of new federal agencies while granting new powers to old ones. With passage of teh 1936 Omnibus Flood Control Act, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took a primary responsibility for flood control and the federal government now had a ticket to the flood and disaster dance. Continuing growth of the federal government, including the creation of FEMA to handle emergencies, has steadily eroded the state’s role so that federalism conflicts now occur with regularity on everything from immigration to the fuel efficiency of SUVs.

Today, the lyrics have changed. Instead of federalism — suggesting states retain certain rights and powers — the vocabulary has shifted to “intergovernmental relations.” Federal departments are expected to “coordinate” their efforts with state and local officials. Where we once spoke of a division of labor between the federal and state governments, now we have overlap and confusion, all sweet music for the sidestepping and finger pointing of the federalism shuffle.

Where does the federalism shuffle leave California’s levees? At the moment, still vulnerable and in need of repair. But we submit that the problem with California’s levees is not simply about money but, at a deeper level, it raises this dilemma of several government entities arguing over who bears the responsibility to move forward. The federalism issues arise in so many ways:

— Some of the levees are funded with federal money, others by the state or local and regional authorities, dividing the financial responsibility.

— As in other areas, the federal government sets standards about levees, but provides no financial support to meet them (the infamous “unfunded mandates”).

— Local and regional governments may actually want to attract more building into flood plain areas to promote economic growth, thereby exacerbating the problems.

Plainly, those who announced that the era of big government is over were mistaken, especially when it comes to huge and expensive projects such as building or even repairing levees. The problem is that once intergovernmental relations replaced traditional federalism, the role of states was diminished and unclear, and the frustrating government dance was born. Perhaps the new role of states — which are both sufficiently centralized and close to the action — should be to lead the dance, bringing federal, state and local authorities together. Otherwise the federalism shuffle will continue to thwart progress and our next governor may have to follow the example of former Gov. Leland Stanford who, in 1862, had to be rowed through the streets of Sacramento to take the oath of office.

This article appeared on Page E-5.

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