Magazine article The Futurist

How State Governments Are Looking Ahead

Magazine article The Futurist

How State Governments Are Looking Ahead

Article excerpt

State government leaders are in the most strategic position of any group of U.S. government decision makers to grasp the opportunities presented by change.

Whether you read political commentators David Osborne or David Broder; whether you read the history of the eight years of the Reagan administration or the lips of his successor, George Bush; whether you read about the problems of former House Speaker Jim Wright or you read about the "smoke and mirrors" budget process that has failed to deal with huge U.S. budget deficits, you must agree that much of the federal government is in gridlock. There appears to be neither the wisdom nor the will to move ahead, to experiment, or to take risks. Leadership on the state level, on the other hand, has been passing through an unusual incubation period, and we are seeing many examples of remarkable adaptation in a period of real stress. We know that highly stressful or dramatic events can change one's character; that seems to be what is happening to the character of state governments.

Three major trends have pressured states to take leadership: federalism, increased need, and fiscal austerity.

* Federalism. No single trend has had more impact on increasing the professionalism and improving the know-how and creativity of state government than federalism, the redistribution of authority over and responsibility for services and programs from the federal government to the states. Withdrawal of federal support for a broad range of programs and services has been extremely burdensome for states. So too have been congressional and court-ordered mandates, such as Medicaid mandates and court-ordered deinstitutionalization of mental patients. As often as not, these changes hit states before they have time to expand their own programs and services to make up for the lack of federal support.

* Increased need. The federalism of the Reagan years coincided with a time of great economic troubles in the states. Many have been weathering difficult economic transitions: rising energy prices, loss of industry, changes in the agricultural industry, and other adjustments. At the same time, the demand for government services has grown rapidly: We now have more homeless, a larger proportion of the population with inadequate health benefits or none at all, more families in need of family-care services, more elderly, more substance abusers - and the list goes on.

* Fiscal austerity. At the same time that the increased need for government services has risen independently of the states' ability to afford them, many states have experienced or are now entering a time of great fiscal austerity. Forty states are now having or are likely to soon have significant budget problems. For example, taxpayers in the state of North Dakota recently voted down three proposed tax increases, which resulted in general-funds cuts of 10%. This means that the size of the state's current budget is about equal to the state's 1981 budget, even though inflation has raised costs 42% in the interim and the demand for state government services has increased dramatically.

The Silver Lining

The last 10 years have been, for many states, a period of growing capabilities and growing awareness of the possible in the face of many roadblocks.

In the context of federalism, increased need, and fiscal austerity, states have moved into a period of concentrated experimentation and innovation. One example: In an effort to compete in a global economy, many states are instituting systems to help small and medium-sized firms identify and exploit export opportunities. And some states have been quite creative in improving their consumer support services; in Cafifornia, for example, you can dial a "900" number, answer a series of questions about your car, your age, and the location of your home, and then receive in the mall a list of the five least-expensive car-insurance companies, with addresses and telephone numbers. …

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