While it is difficult to persuade a state that relies on the federal government for 42 percent of its budget that it should begin to unwind some of those funds, there is arguably more for a state to gain than lose by shedding some of its dependence on the federal trough.
But even if voluntarily forgoing such assistance is a bridge too far, it is becoming more and more essential for the state to assume greater financial responsibility.
Alabama voters are looking at legislators to do just that.
An overwhelming 79 percent of recently surveyed Republican primary voters considered it important for Alabama to be financially prepared for the likelihood that DC will reduce its funding to the state.
Questions about Washington’s reliability are well founded, given the nation’s own financial and political health. Even the most politically disengaged must pause to fathom the $20 trillion (and rising) debt amassed by our federal government.
What’s more, in an increasingly politicized environment, states have seen federal funds threatened over policy differences with sitting presidents of both parties. Whether unable or unwilling, nothing binds Washington to sustain the support on which states have become accustomed.
But there are other reasons to approach conditional federal grants with caution.
When a state accepts conditional funding, it necessarily relegates itself to the dictates of Washington, selling short both legislators and citizens alike; state lawmakers are unable to influence the policies imposed on their constituents and cannot be held responsible for complications in implementation.
Accordingly, citizens must rely on a detached DC bureaucrat to address concerns about policy impacts on their lives and businesses.
Voters resent this “Mother May I?” approach to lawmaking. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed trusted the efficiency of state-run programs over federally run programs, while only 34 percent indicated any faith that federal spending in Alabama reflects our state’s values and priorities.
Furthermore, the nature of grants conditioned on DC mandates invites cynicism that develops when governing policy and law is developed by a far-removed legislative body.
Only 33 percent of voters polled felt informed about the federal policy “strings” attached to money already accepted by the state.
These obstacles to accountability and transparency — hallmarks of good government — hinder voters’ ability to identify or expound on specific programs and is a pariah to the spirit of the American system, which rests on the consent of the governed.
Making a bad situation worse, federal funds can lead to increased spending in already-strained state budgets, a consequence opposed by 67 percent of respondents surveyed.
This can happen directly, such as when grants require matching funds or financing beyond the initial federal investment to maintain or enhance a program. But it can also happen indirectly, either when federal grants encourage states to undertake projects they would not otherwise choose or when state or local taxes are increased to bankroll overextended commitments.
Whatever the cause, “free” money can become expensive quickly.
Because spending is often the first solution offered by Washington, conditional grants sometimes involve sympathetic causes, such as disaster relief or, on a smaller scale, safety equipment for law enforcement.
Such programs create short-term fanfare for politicians and temporary relief for beneficiaries, but they invite a potential crisis when the money runs dry. Once the federal government assumes responsibility for essential services, citizens and states are left dependent on the whims of Washington to meet critical needs.
Of course, Washington’s willingness to meet these needs is not based on benevolence; rather, it is driven by a desire to impose a particular agenda simply by dangling an irresistible carrot.
But the resources and attention required to avoid the proverbial stick detract from priorities state legislators and officials might pursue if left to their own devices. Ironically, conditional funding can even lead the state to work against the wishes of its own citizens, as was the case with Race to the Top dollars associated with Common Core.
In an era of Washington overreach, Alabama must begin to challenge the mechanisms that make us beholden to the federal government if constitutional state sovereignty is what we desire.
Taking a closer look at conditional federal funding — phasing out existing commitments and more critically evaluating future opportunities, while reevaluating the allocation of our own state funds — is a good place to start.
Leigh Hixon is senior director of policy relations for the Alabama Policy Institute.
(Editor’s note: This post is the second of a three part series focusing on Alabama’s federal dependency. The first was We Dare Defend Our Rights).