A modest proposal to the federal government: Let Utah do it

By Michael G. Waddoups and David Clark
Friday, February 19, 2010; A17

We propose a modest experiment. As Utah state leaders, we are greatly concerned about the unprecedented expansion of the federal government over many years, and the enormous debt levels being left to our children and grandchildren.

We believe the federal government is attempting to do far more than it has the capacity to execute well. Congress has inserted itself into every aspect of our lives with laws and regulations that don't fit the widely divergent nature of the states and localities. The job descriptions assumed by President Obama and Congress have grown far larger than their ability to deliver.

We'd like to relieve some of their burden.

We don't believe that 535 members of Congress and the president can educate our children, provide health care, pave our roads and protect our environment as well as the nation's 8,000 state legislators and tens of thousands of local officials.

So please, let us help. Let's select a few programs -- say, education, transportation and Medicaid -- that are managed mostly by Utah's government, but with significant federal dollars and a plethora of onerous federal interventions and regulations.

Let Utah take over these programs entirely. But let us keep in our state the portion of federal taxes Utah residents pay for these programs. The amount would not be difficult to determine. Rather than send this money through the federal bureaucracy, we would retain it and would take full responsibility for education, transportation and Medicaid -- minus all federal oversight and regulation.

We recognize that, financially, this is not the best deal for Utah. We would not receive our share of debt revenue used in these programs, and Utah taxpayers would continue to pay our share of the interest on the national debt used for these programs in other states.

Even so, we believe we can operate these programs more efficiently and productively without federal strings and mandates.

Utah is a small state, and this experiment in the interest of balanced federalism would have little impact on the federal budget, on other programs or on other states.

If it works, perhaps other states would choose to opt out of federal programs and retain the federal tax dollars paying for them. This could eventually relieve Washington of massive obligations while also restoring a better balance in the federal system.

We suggest this experiment not from a partisan or ideological perspective but because this approach is the best governance model for the 21st century.

Thanks to enormous advances in networking and communications, the Founders' vision of balanced federalism can operate better than ever. We support a forward-looking, high-tech, progressive approach to governance that fosters innovation and empowerment.

We recognize the need for a strong federal government and fully support federal primacy in certain areas. We recognize that some federal standards must be established, with maximum state flexibility in meeting those standards.

But today the federal government operates like an old-fashioned mainframe computer, pushing one-size-fits-all mandates out to the states. We believe there is value in intelligent decentralization. In our complex society, commerce, environmental challenges and myriad other regulatory matters regularly cross state lines. States have the technological capabilities to collaborate on shared challenges, operating like powerful computers on the Internet, linked together to establish standards and adopting best practices and innovations that improve performance. We can have 8,000 state legislators and thousands more state and local government leaders addressing the nation's problems instead of 535 lawmakers worried more about reelection than about the nation's most daunting challenges.

Devolution is part of the solution to the seemingly intractable problems in our nation. Certainly, states face some serious budget problems and challenges. And some states won't perform as well as others. But states will learn from each other and voters will demand better performance from governments close to home than they expect from Washington.

It would be far better for a state or two to fail than for the entire country to be burdened to the point of economic disaster by a mountain of debt and federal irresponsibility.

Justice Louis Brandeis said that states were designed to be laboratories of democracy. So let's start with one state and a few programs and see what happens.

Michael G. Waddoups is president of the Utah Senate. David Clark is speaker of the Utah House of Representatives. Both are Republicans.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company