Senator: Federalism Fight Isn't Over

Posted on January 6, 2005

WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, one of the few ardent champions of federalism in Congress, was preaching to the choir today when he told a gathering of county executives in Washington about the glories of the cause. "I can be a Paul Revere for federalism," Alexander said, "and I can waive a lantern from the tower for federalism, but you've got to be the Minutemen." Alexander outlined a long and familiar list of issues where Washington has come up with requirements but passed a goodly share of the cost on to states and localities, including illegal immigration, stormwater runoff and driver's license requirements. "The conservatives are as bad as the liberals," said Alexander, a Republican. "They get a good idea and then send the bill home." He demurred, though, from the usual characterization of the No Child Left Behind law as an underfunded mandate, noting that federal spending on education has increased by 40 percent over the last four years. Alexander, a former two-term governor, has sought to keep state and local concerns prominent during many policy debates in Washington, perhaps most notably in the area of Internet regulation and taxation. At Alexander's urging, the "Big 7" group of state and local associations has been meeting with representatives of the telecommunications, cable and Internet industries to try to simplify and modernize telecom taxes. The groups are hoping to carve out a set of agreed principles in time for the National Governors' Association meeting next month in Washington. Alexander's message fell on receptive ears. "The appetite for the exercise of power is addictive, regardless of one's previous ideological bent," Gerald Connelly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and president of the Virginia Association of Counties, said in an interview. "All the rhetoric of devolution and putting power in the hands of local government is forgotten." Larry Naake, executive director of the National Association of Counties, which sponsored the meeting, said that the group is hoping to increase the visibility of local issues among federal officials. Looking ahead, Naake said that NACo will start demanding satisfaction — or at least attention — from presidential candidates much earlier in the process, working with affiliates in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary states as far as two years ahead of the next presidential election to raise their concerns.