State and Local Leadership Needed on Federal Deficit Reduction

Blog Post
Monday, November 12, 2012

Example isn’t the main thing in influencing others – it is the only thing. – Albert Schweitzer

Increasingly alarmed by the nation’s deteriorating fiscal outlook and the failure of our political system to produce timely, common sense solutions, some state officials have begun to show leadership. They can do much more.

This year, the United States Conference of Mayors and the two leading associations of state legislators issued compelling resolutions that urge action by their federal counterparts. 

In September the mayors called for “a bipartisan and balanced approach to deficit reduction by incorporating spending cuts with additional revenue from sources such as tax code reform and closing unfair corporate tax loopholes.” In October the mayors reiterated their call for “a balanced plan for recovery that has the potential to restore the confidence of our people, and the world, in the leadership of our national government.”

The bipartisan Council of State Governments-West unanimously passed a resolution at its annual meeting in July urging Congress “to pass a comprehensive and aggressive budget resolution to address our nation’s deficit spending and national debt.” The group clearly identified the need to “tolerate provisions we oppose in order to reach principled compromise” and to “put national interest above special interests.”

Earlier in the year, the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) sent a letter to Congress and the President to ask for passage of a comprehensive plan modeled after recommendations by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force. NCSL cited the “need to examine all possible avenues for deficit reduction, including discretionary spending, entitlement reform and revenue-related options.”

In addition, Wyoming’s legislature overwhelmingly passed a resolution this year “requesting Congress to pass a comprehensive deficit and debt reduction plan and urging support from the President.” The primary goal of the sponsor, State Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff, was “to give our members of Congress permission to compromise.”

Fortunately, it worked. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) was one of only 38 U.S. House members – including 16 Republicans – to vote in favor of a comprehensive and bipartisan budget plan.

Unfortunately, leadership by example has been lacking in most states. Federal politicians are eager to label spending in other states as wasteful, but just as eager to defend wasteful federal funding for their own states or districts. By choosing to ignore or defend lower-priority projects, they make budget stabilization extremely difficult.

For too long, a common measure of success for members of Congress has been much federal money they could siphon off to their home district. They now must rise above parochial interests to vote for the good of the nation.

For example, in my own state of Wyoming, our federal legislators continue to fight for $300,000 to $500,000 per year in spending to keep the east gate to Yellowstone National Park open to snowmobiles through 20 avalanche paths that regularly block the road. Only about 90 machines go through the area each winter. This amounts to a subsidy of thousands of dollars per snowmobile.

These same legislators refused to speak out against a 90 percent federally funded $70 million state highway project in Teton County that is unanimously opposed by the county commission, Republicans and Democrats, who favor a less costly alternative.

Nationwide, there are literally thousands of wasteful projects like this. Many members of Congress who profess to be concerned about the debt support these projects.

The classic case was Alaska’s $400 million bridge to Gravina Island, population 50, which would have been longer than the Golden Gate and taller than the Brooklyn Bridge. Gravina Island already has excellent ferry service.

In an encouraging display of real leadership, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oak.) put together an Oklahoma Waste Report that identified 35 federal spending programs his state could live without. The programs totaled $173 million, about 8 percent of annual federal spending in Oklahoma. Many of the projects, like spending $1,900 per resident for unneeded sidewalks in small towns, made no sense.

Coburn said: “If we have the courage to identify and eliminate unnecessary programs in our communities, we will be taking a bold step towards securing the future for the next generation of Americans.”

Our nation is on an unsustainable fiscal path. State and local leaders can help by taking a pass on wasteful federal projects and by urging more responsible action by recalcitrant or timid federal officials. This is not a matter of ideology.  It is simple arithmetic. More state and local leadership by example could make a huge difference in the fight to build a brighter and more prosperous future for the nation.