Federalism-And the Intergovernmental Partnership-Matter

By Borut, Donald J. | Nation's Cities Weekly, January 14, 2008 | Go to article overview

Federalism-And the Intergovernmental Partnership-Matter


Borut, Donald J., Nation's Cities Weekly


I barely stayed awake in my graduate seminar in federalism trying to understand and appreciate the importance of the passionate differences advocated by the founding fathers while drafting the Constitution. Today, I am all too aware of the significance of our system of federalism, as I witness and work to prevent the unraveling of the intergovernmental system

In our country, political leaders of all stripes profess a belief that the government closest to the people should be given priority on decisions that are local in nature and decisions that have a national or collective consequence are the domain of the federal government.

This is a basic concept that is widely distorted in today's political environment. The use of eminent domain--a proroundly local issue--draws the attention of scores of members of Congress who rush to ride the tsunami of fear and pass federal legislation preempting local autonomy. Comprehensive immigration reform, an issue clearly requiring federal action, so far has been too difficult for those in Washington to address, leaving it to individual communities to struggle with the consequences of congressional inaction.

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Local elected officials must confront the challenges in their communities without regard to the breakdown of our intergovernmental system. Collectively, local elected officials work to oppose unfunded federal mandates and federal preemption of local authority as a defensive measure at the same time pressing the federal government to address critical national issues including transportation, health care and immigration, which directly impact municipal governments.

There has been a clear decline of fiscal federalism. Since the late 1970s the federal government's share of city budgets has declined from about 15 percent to 5 percent and NLC's annual survey of city finance officers shows that the federal share of city revenues is more like 2-3 percent today. On sheer revenues alone, the federal government isn't as relevant as it once was to the daily operations of cities.

At the same time there has been a rise of regulatory or "coercive federalism" through regulations, mandates and preemptions. From 1945-1995, the number of federal mandates on state and local governments increased from less than 10 to more than 100. Even after the adoption of legislation to control federal unfunded mandates the number continues to rise. Recently, when California took the lead on behalf of a number of states to set higher standards to regulate motor vehicles' greenhouse gas emissions, the federal Environmental Protection Agency blocked the effort.

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