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State to feds: No new, unfunded mandates

Two interim committees have kept me headed to Denver pretty frequently, but another extra assignment I have is the National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL) Federal Deficit Reduction Task Force.

Our national fiscal condition continues to be a critical topic for state legislators, particularly given the interplay between federal and state budgets.

In mid-September, I met my fellow NCSL task force members in Washington, D.C., to get updated on the work of the federal “Supercommittee,” whose job it is to reduce the federal deficit by at least $1.2 trillion by Thanksgiving.

If they’re unsuccessful, cuts will be automatically triggered in the politically extra-sensitive areas of defense and Medicare spending. There are a number of proposals suggesting how to reduce the deficit, but most provide disturbingly little discussion of the impacts on the states. We went to D.C. to make sure our views were considered.

Congress will likely meet the Thanksgiving deadline as the threat of automatic cuts appear to be providing the needed pressure for action of some sort. The bigger question is, will Congress “go big” and truly deal with the deficit or will they just do the minimum to avoid the automatic trigger?

When we met with our federal counterparts, we didn’t ask for the impossible — that is, no cuts to state programs. We know that’s necessary for the short and long term fiscal health of our country. Instead, we asked not to be hit disproportionately, that there be no new unfunded mandates to states and local governments and that flexibility be restored to our state programs.

My personal view is that Congress should go big and not do the bare minimum. The Simpson–Bowles proposal is a good place to begin the needed debate on federal spending and revenue. But, tinkering around the edges of the fiscal mess is failure when we can least afford it.

The congressional members have my sympathy, to a point. I know what it’s like to answer angry phone calls, e-mails and threats of political harm at the next election. Yet, we need leaders, especially at the national level, who’ll put aside their own political futures to get our fiscal house in order.

Among my family keepsakes is my grandparents’ rationing coupon book used during World War II. Then, personal sacrifice on many levels was asked of, and received from, all Americans. I’m not suggesting we resurrect coupon books, but we’re at another point in our history when leaders need the intestinal fortitude to ask us all to give on a personal level to help dig out of the fiscal hole we’re in. No more blame games, just get busy coming up with what that needs to look like and let’s get on with it.

States have sacrificed much of our autonomy to the federal government in exchange for promised funding. But, that funding has dwindled already and more dramatic cuts are on the horizon. State legislators know the struggles that go along with achieving balanced budgets, but acknowledging that it’s not easy is no excuse for failing the important task in front of the federal Supercommittee and Congress, as a whole.

Stringing the states and country along without addressing the core problem of our national budget is irresponsible and further delays our mutual economic recovery and stability.

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