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Devolution chic: why sending power to the states could make a monkey out of Uncle Sam.

Newt Gingrich knows that every good revolution demands a new vocabulary. Sometimes he prefers to toss off futurisms like "the Third Wave" or "empowered citizens of the information age." Other times he favors the archaic - phrases with an old world flair like "American civilization," "the Republic," or, his favorite, the "Contract With America."

But save high honors for a word that will send a giddy shiver up any Newtnik's spine: "devolution." To the uninitiated, this word may conjure images of man returning to an ape-like state. But it's not the state of nature that the Speaker wants to alter radically, it's the state of the Union.

The problem with Uncle Sam, Gingrich says, is that he has gained too much weight; he has become clumsy and out-of-touch. The federal government, Gingrich argues, can't solve society's mounting problems. The solution: Devolve authority and tax dollars back to the 50 states - the "laboratories of democracy," as Louis Brandeis famously called them - and even further down, to counties and cities.

Gingrich is not the only one talking about a devolution. This new localism, more than any other ideological tenet or policy prescription, is the core of the modem Republican agenda. Devolution is the theme that runs through nearly all of the Republican's high-profile domestic initiatives, including crime policy, poverty programs, and deregulation. Whether it's cops on the street, environmental protection, or school lunches for poor kids, the Republican solution is to devolve it.

Now legislatures from 20 states are considering measures to demand devolution at a "conference of states" this summer in Chicago, the first formal meeting of the states since the Constitutional Congress in 1787. And even President Clinton is paying lip service to the new devolution chic.

There's no denying the allure of localism. Democracy's laboratories can offer efficient, even brilliant, solutions to problems that confound Washington: Oregon, Hawaii, and Rochester, New York have all led the way in health reform. So, at a time when America yearns for a return to community, why not let local governments take charge? Aren't local governments leaner, better-managed and, most important, closer to the people? For 30 years, "a mighty river [of money and responsibility] has flowed in the direction of Washington, D.C.," says Lamar Alexander, the Republican who has made devolution the core of his presidential bid. "This river ... should instead flow toward our families, schools, communities, and states."

But devolution is not the quick fix it might seem. Set aside, for the moment, the disturbing images that "states' rights" conjure, images of Alabama police beating on civil rights marchers. Set aside, too, the beguiling talk of "community" and the heady philosophizing that inevitably turns to The Federalist Papers.

At its heart, the devolution solution is only as good as the thousands of state, county, and city governments upon which it would rely. And devolutionists' idyllic view of the localities - lean, well-managed, and close to the people - is far from the reality.

Getting Down

Essential to devolution's appeal is the belief that it will be an antidote to big government. "Top-down mainframe-type government doesn't work," says Governor Mike Leavitt of Utah. "People want more decisions being made in their hometown and in their state capital than in Washington. And they want less government, and this is the way to get it."

But if Republicans are worried about bloated bureaucracies and inept, arrogant stewards of taxpayer money, they're looking in the wrong place. Between 1970 and 1992, the number of federal civilian employees only grew from three million to 3.1 million - actually declining as a percentage of the U.S. population. The ranks of state government employees, meanwhile, grew 20 times faster - from 2.8 million to 4.6 million, an increase of 64 percent. And the number of local government employees recently hit 11.1 million, a 19 percent jump in just 10 years.

Those who live in one of the 50 state capitals have seen the office buildings sprouting up to house all the new staff. Combined expenses just for state legislative branches (for salaries, facilities, etc.) increased between 1972 and 1990 by 117 percent. That's adjusted for inflation, and it's a little higher than the 19 percent for the supposedly wildly out-of-control U.S. Congress.

Of course it's not just the numbers that matter, it's the mindset. In Republican parlance "federal bureaucrat" is an oft-used epithet, denoting dim-witted and little-motivated. The federal civil service has been rightly criticized for not punishing indolence, it is true, but the state worker unions have garnered the same coddling treatment.

A few years ago in New Jersey, for example, only 74 of its 74,000 civil service workers - one tenth of one percent - received a job performance evaluation that was significantly below par. Either managers were afraid to criticize their workers-for-life, or Trenton was able to assemble one of the most diligent groups of workers since the construction of the Egyptian pyramids. "You have to screw up badly to get kicked out," admits Brenda Trolin of the National Council of State Legislatures.

Take the Peoria, Illinois cop who was discovered screaming "nigger" at a police dog. Asked why, he replied that he did it to "fire [the dog] up." The solution? Peoria officials suspended the dog, and the officer remained on active duty.

In fairness, though, it should be noted that the would-be foot soldiers of the devolution are sometimes asked to leave. Bobby Bouffine of St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana., was fired after it was discovered that, during working hours, he had made a little visit to an X-rated video store. He went inside and, with the city's 8-ton, 25-foot long pothole-filling machine parked conspicuously in the parking lot, he browsed for several hours.

Devolutionists might say this example shows how local officials can keep a close eye on their employees. Authority should be devolved, they say, because local officials are endowed with a management genius not seen at higher levels, of government.

Devolutionists must not be paying much attention to local police departments. Policing is, of course, one of the most important functions of local government. Certainly, it is one of the functions which the average citizen cares about most. Yet, with a few exceptions, experts agree that police departments suffer from management that ranges somewhere between poor and terrible.

In the District of Columbia, where crime runs rampant, WJLA television news recently ran a series showing how some of D.C.'s finest were spending the crucial night shift: on duty, in a parking lot, with the car lights off, fast asleep. One of the few signs of urgent activity came when one of the officers hopped out of the car to go to the bathroom. Still, there is a much more disturbing sign of poor management: Since 1989, more than 200 D.C. police officers have been arrested on charges that range from petty shoplifting to brutal crimes like rape and even murder.

In New Orleans, too, it would appear that local officials do not have a very good grip on their officers. The FBI says that it caught officer Len Davis ordering the execution of a woman who had just filed a police brutality complaint against him:

"The bitch brown-skinned, with light brown eyes," Davis can be heard saying to an alleged drug dealer. "I got the phone and the radio. After it's done, go straight uptown and call me."

Twelve minutes later, the woman died, the victim of a drive-by shooting.

(Even at its worst, the management of the FBI and Secret Service are several cuts above the average local police department.)

Law enforcement, of course, is not the only area where this devolutionist myth - that local officials, as a rule, are better managers - falls down. In New Orleans, Johnnie Smith, his wife, and their four children burned to death in a housing project. Only two weeks earlier, the Housing Authority of New Orleans had failed to collect a $106,000 federal grant to put smoke detectors in the Smiths' high-rise. The grant had been offered a ear before, and a batch of smoke detectors sat, still in their packages, in a downtown warehouse. But it was too difficult, the housing authority explained, to find someone to screw the detectors in.

Local child protective services have not won many gold stars for good management, either. Philadelphia's Lillie Mae Ferebee spent 10 years being transferred from foster home to foster home until a case worker was able to reunite her with her father. But the father, a diagnosed schizophrenic, had just finished serving a ten-year prison sentence for raping a child. Months later, the child's grandmother brought the caseworker the news that Lillie Mae's father had been raping and beating her.

Asked why she had assigned the little girl to a child rapist in the first place, the case worker had a straightforward response. "To be perfectly honest," the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted her telling a court, "he said he wasn't guilty." The caseworker was not so much as disciplined.

The point isn't that local government workers are melonheads. There are plenty of examples - like the oft-cited stories in Reinventing Government - of officials who innovate and deliver. The problem with devolution idealism, though, is that there are at least as many examples where this is not the case.

The same could be said of the ways that local officials spend their money. The only rule, as anybody who has looked closely at local government can tell you, is that there is no rule. Some school districts, for example, are the envy of neighbors; while others are in complete disrepair, and money alone does not explain the differences. The District of Columbia spends more per-pupil then just about any school system in the country, yet, despite the heroic efforts of some teacher - the quality of the education delivered is consistently - rated among the worst, even compared to the other large urban districts. Montgomery County schools, just miles away, spend less per pupil, yet the students learn more.

Contrary to the devolutionist's dreamy ideals, it is just not the case that local officials are consistently wiser dispensers of the taxpayer's purse. But that's not stopping the devolvers from trying to hand over the purse. Republicans, for example, want to replace much of the crime bill with block grants, giving local law enforcement officials the freedom to decide how best to spend the money. "[The Democrats] put all sorts of strings saying exactly how the money could be used," says Rep. Jerry Lewis of California. "I always tend to lean toward delivering money to states and local jurisdictions for their efforts against crime."

A noble thought. But while the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), an older program that provided crime-fighting block grants to localities, was a model of local creativity, it was not the kind of creativity that inspires confidence.

One Louisiana sheriff, for instance, used his LEA grant to purchase an armored tank. He said he needed it for crowd control. In Alabama, officials received $117,247 for a "police cadet" academy. It's hard to argue with money spent on education, but, in this case, the money was used to pay for the college tuition of the children and friends of the well-connected. There was no cadet academy.

Then there's the Indiana State Police, who spent $84,000 in LEAA money on a plane that was mainly used to fly the Governor and his family around the country. One of the trips, program investigators later noted, was made to Washington to pick up some rock retrieved from the Moon by an Apollo mission. Local priorities at work again.

Even when their priorities aren't skewed, local officials have yet to prove that they are any better at financial management than their federal counterparts. Consider police and firemen pensions. Large amounts of money have been stolen - from right under the noses of local pension administrators - by police and firemen who claim disability payments even though nothing is wrong.

To cite just one of many emerging scandals, New York's Newsday found that of 292 cops who retired at the rank of captain or higher, an unbelievable 60 percent received some kind of disability benefit. And, even though the rate of retirements had started to fall, pension disability payments increased by $25 million between 1991 and 1993. The reason is that those who claim to have been hurt on the job are entitled to 75 percent of their ending salary, tax-free. Fine for those public servants disabled in the line of duty, but not for those who Newsday found taking in disability payments while working an active job and playing sports.

In California, home to Silicon Valley, unsophisticated state officials have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on complex computer systems for agencies that do not know how to use them. The most extreme example is a project for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. When competent computer experts were finally called in, they concluded that it would take another $153 million - almost four times the original cost - to make the botched system work. Perhaps if California had had a federal block grant, it could have sent even more money down the sinkhole.

That's exactly what's happening with the Boston Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel project. In the mid-eighties, the project to modernize Boston's famously outdated road system was pitched to Congress with a price tag of about $2.3 billion. Congress approved the project, but gave the state of Massachusetts nearcomplete authority to oversee it - a devolutionist's dream come true. Now, according to a February report from the Washington, D.C. Project on Government Oversight, the price tag has reached $9.6 billion - the most expensive highway project in U.S. history - and it could hit $12 billion, not far from the cost of the 32-mile tunnel under the English Channel. Oh, and instead of being done in 1998, it now looks as though 2004 is a safer bet.

Being close to projects can also make local officials blind from a form of insanity commonly known as boosterism. The most obvious example is the recently completed Denver International Airport. In 1987, Mile High politicians convinced the voters to approve a 120-gate, $1.7 billion airport a full 40 minutes outside of town, despite warnings that Denver would never need such a large facility. This ambitious, high-tech project was plagued by delays, such as the one caused by a baggage system that sent luggage just about everywhere but its destination. By the time the airport opened in February, a good year-and-a-half behind schedule, it had been scaled back to 88 gates and the cost was heading toward $5 billion - some $3 billion over budget. With the airlines pulling out because of the rising costs, Standard & Poor's downgraded the airport's bond rating to a junk bond, leaving Denver residents holding the bag.

But you don't have to be a big city to go overboard. In the late eighties, for example, officials of the megalopolis of Hightstown, New Jersey, home to three stoplights and 4,200 people, set out to purchase a fire truck. After much deliberation, fire officials decided that their little town needed a model with a ladder that extends 135 feet in the air, one of the highest in the country. The price tag for the special truck was so high - half a million dollars - that town leaders floated a special bond to buy it.

But it turns out that the town's name is not particularly apt: The tallest building in Hightstown which averaged about 12 fires a year, is 35 feet. And that's just as well, added a former volunteer fireman, because most of Hightstown's firemen are too scared to climb up the 135 foot ladder. Half-a-million dollars for the prettiest float of the parade.

50 Degrees of Separation

The real goal of devolution, says Indiana Governor Evan Bayh, "is to try and restrain the imperial Washington that has grown up over the last 50 to 60 years.... The federal government has become out of touch."

No democrat can disagree that, for our system of government to work properly, the people's representatives must represent the people's views. And state governments, the conventional thinking goes, are much more sensitive to the public's priorities than the federal government.

This logic has a strong ring of truth to it. Nevada residents like legalized gambling, so the state gives it to them. Florida residents favor chemical castrations for convicted rapists, so the legislature is considering it. You may or may not like these policies, but the states seem to respond to the peoples' wishes.

The problem is that most state legislatures - where devolutionists want many of the most important decisions to be made - are far more vulnerable than the federal government to well-monied special interests. As state government has exploded, the states have not put the proper safeguards in place, and lobbyists have flooded the capitols.

The dynamic is by now well-own: Campaigns have become so extensive that candidates cannot win without a treasure chest; PACs are happy to provide the money, for a price. Before long, the people's best interests get lost. Between 1982 and 1988, the cost of running for state senator in Alaska climbed 140 percent. In Oregon, it climbed 157 percent.

Some 20 states impose no limit on the amount of money that a PAC can sign over to candidates. And in some of the states that do have limits, the limits are either incredibly high or poorly enforced. "There are very few strong, independent election commissions at the state level," notes Common Cause's Ed Davis. "Very few states have the kinds of standards we see at the federal level."

And the corruption can be far from subtle. Take Kentucky. The FBI recently caught one of the state's most powerful lobbyists, John W. "Jay" Spurrier III, handing out bribes. Confronted with the evidence, he agreed to cooperate in a broader investigation of corruption in the legislature.

The results were impressive. Among those caught was Speaker of the House Don Blandford, who made for a memorable video clip: "Bless your heart," Blandford declared, stuffing their bribe into his pocket after agreeing to kill a bill opposed by the harness-racing business.

No state in the-country is immune, not even California where trends so often hit first. An FBI Special Agent assigned there posed as a shrimp importer in search of special treatment and soon found out how Sacramento really works. He offered bribes to legislators, who were more than happy to oblige. So responsive were the legislators, in fact, that the special tax exemption for the agent's phony business actually passed the legislature and the FBI had to tell the Governor of the investigation so he could veto the bill. As a result of the operation, a dozen public officials have been convicted.

Unfortunately, Kentucky and California are not isolated instances. In just the last few years, there have been major scandals in Arizona, South Carolina, New Jersey, and Alabama - not to mention such bastions of corruption as Louisiana, Massachusetts, Texas, Illinois, Rhode Island, and West Virginia. Compared to 1972, 1991 saw more than 10 times as many state and local officials convicted on federal corruption charges.

Another problem that regular readers of the Monthly's "Tilting at Windmills" will be familiar with is the concentration of power in the hands of just a few leaders, usually on legislative rules committees that decide which bills will be considered, and when. These committee members have taken to scheduling scores of votes on the final day of a session to avoid careful, deliberative debate. The result is a flood of bills passed in the session's final hours by members who are too afraid to break rank. On the last day of a recent session of the Virginia Assembly, legislators passed 65 bills, more than one-third of its total for the year. And, on one day in 1991, Rhode Island legislators passed 122 bills, some of them more than 30 pages long. Those outside the leadership may not like the system that much, but lobbyists love it: They only have to buy off the few at the top.

Closeness to the people is more than a matter of simple geography. In many ways, the state capitols are more protected from the voters than their national counterpart. State legislators are not generally subjected to the same level of press scrutiny as U.S. congressmen. And the average citizen often has a much better idea of what's happening in the nation's capital than in their state capital, not to mention their county government. Can you name your state senator?

50 Monkeys

Most people cannot. But, for reasons that are difficult to understand among a crowd that loves the word efficiency," the devolutionists seem convinced that it's almost always better to let 50 state governments deal with national problems. This despite obvious failures.

Crime, for sample, is consistently among the top concerns for Americans all around the country. Yet it is the state governments, not the federal government, that have dropped the ball on prisons. While most federal prisoners can expect to serve 85 percent of their sentence, it is not unusual for state prisoners to serve just 30 percent. State politicians are happy to talk tough, and praise laws like "Three Strikes, You're Out," but they have not provided enough funding for courts and prisons to ensure the rhetoric is actually carried out. Prisons overflow with non-violent drug offenders, and violent criminals get out early.

In monetary terms, the most expensive state failure in recent years was, of course, the multibillion dollar S&L crisis, sparked when the Reagan administration allowed states to deregulate while making the federal government financially responsible for any mishaps - an invitation to freeloading. When federal regulators finally stepped in to stop the disaster, two-thirds of the lost funds could be traced to state-chartered S&Ls.

The national insurance industry, however, continues to be regulated by a patchwork of state regulations, despite a string of scandals According to Newsweek, the latest series of problems involve "churning." Agents sell new policies, earning commissions, without explaining that (despite what seems a better deal) the new policies are set to expire sooner, leaving the holder without protection. Said an insurance executive to a federal investigator in 1979, "Would you rather be regulated by 50 monkeys or King Kong?" The insurance companies prefer the 50 monkeys for a reason, and it's not the public interest.

In fact, if the devolutionists get their way, there will be many, many more than 50 monkeys. Already government is "fragmenting," says local government expert Dennis Judd of the University of Missouri, "and often there is nobody minding the store." Police departments have overlapping jurisdictions, and communication between them often fails. Local fire districts don't always cover everyone. "The county fire department might be responsible for you home," says Judd, "but do they know?" "Look at your property tax bill"' he continues. "There will be a long list of charges from all kinds of special districts - water, sewer, fire, etc. - and you have no idea who these guys are."

For some of devolution's most ardent supporters, though, chaos is kind of the idea: Their enemy is not inefficiency, but the government itself. The last time devolution was in vogue, Ronald Reagan was president, promising "a new federalism." This precedent is telling.

Reagan said the states should have more control, but that was just an excuse to blindly eliminate health and safety regulations; the states could not possibly fill the vacuum. Reagan did not so much devolve authority as eliminate it.

Reagan also argued for turning social programs into block grants, much as the Republicans are doing now, saying it would allow the states to be more creative. Reagan created nine block grants in his first year. But five of them - including those for low-income heating assistance, job training, and other social services - were hardly funded at all. The states have to be especially creative when they are assigned a program without any money.

And the more power is devolved, it turned out, the more wealthy suburbanites can freeload off the cities. There are many residents of Connecticut's tony suburbs, for example, who make their livings off New York City while escaping its taxes. "It amounts to a transfer of money to wealthier taxpayers," says the University of Missouri's Judd. In the District of Columbia, where legions of well-paid workers drive in and out every day, city officials have occasionally threatened to install tollbooths on all the access roads.

Before Reagan, federal aid as a percentage of state and local spending was 26 percent. By 1989, the federal contribution had fallen to 17 percent. That's how Reagan's "new federalism" earned the nickname "shift and shaft."

The new breed appears to be preparing to do both all over again. When GOP governors protested that the central reform of the Republicans' welfare proposal - requiring work - would be too burdensome, the House leadership simply dropped it. A minor sacrifice, they explained toward the larger goal of replacing the current program with block grants that let states spend the money as they like. The block grants, the Republicans have already admitted, will have to do more with less money.

There is, of course, plenty of reinventing to be done in the way the federal government approaches problems, and there are states eager to try new solutions to problems the federal government has not been able to crack.

But let's not get swept away by the rhetoric. Only a few states, for example, have taken bold steps to reform heath care. And only a handful are intent on trying the kind of real welfare reform that Clinton campaigned on. Most are doing very little. The idea of 50 states out there, all ready to try dramatic new solutions but for stodgy Uncle Sam, is ridiculous.

And if state experimentation is the real goal - as Republicans said it was with welfare - then why aren't the states being encouraged to experiment? Why not fund real welfare experiments in the states, and see what works best?

Instead, the devolution debate has become strangely twisted. Everyone agrees that when citizens get involved n their local government, in their schools, in their in neighborhoods, the results can inspire awe. But the high talk of devolution has the equation exactly backwards, amounting to the mother of all unfunded mandates: It would be great if local governments were efficient institutions made vital by active citizen involvement, the thinking goes, so let's get the federal government to declare it so.

The truly dedicated devolutionist should focus on making sure local governments deserve more authority. If the Council of the States, planned for this summer, comes off as planned, then the delegates might take some time away from workshops on the true meaning of the Tenth Amendment, and promise to fix their own houses first.

First, as power and money and well-paid lobbyists pour into the state capitols, the states should at least impose reasonable limits on PAC contributions. They should promise to fund effective, independent election agencies, empowered to seek out and stop corruption.

Better yet, states could truly control the alligator-shoe set by passing public financing laws, much like those for presidential elections. Not an easy promise to make for those addicted to PAC money, but it would demonstrate some real seriousness.

They should also resolve to hold state workers to the same standards as the private sector; workers should be well-paid for innovation and fired for incompetence or laziness. With five million state workers (read: "five million votes") out there, that will not be an easy promise either, but it's essential if state government is to become truly effective.

For all the Newtnik fireworks and catch-phrases, then, the real devolution revolution cannot begin in Washington. Only if the states can clean up their acts and stop the lobbyists from making the calls will the system function as the founding fathers intended. Only then will politicians be accountable, and only then will the people's voices truly be heard and acted on.

There's got to be a word for that.
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Author:Cook, Gareth G.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1995
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