The South Caroline Supreme Court recently ruled that the Governor was “required” to accept the stimulus money that the federal government is “offering” to the states. The Governor did not want to take the funds because accepting them would tie his state to an increased level of spending for many government programs, and when the federal dollars run out in a few years, the state would be stuck with the bill for those programs.
The federal government has been invading the rights of the states to direct policy and programs for decades. The invasion has been cloaked in gold – federal dollars are made available, the states were given the opportunity to voluntarily apply for the dollars, and if their applications were accepted, they received the federal funds to implement the program. Since the application process was a voluntary one, the Tenth Amendment was not violated.
Over the years, the gold flowed freely from Washington to the various state capitals. Money was provided for programs in every social and economic area, from education to criminal justice to energy. New programs brought new money, in a dizzying stream. There was gold everywhere.
No one seemed to notice that every ounce of the federal gold came with federal chains. Or that the federal chains remained when the federal gold ran out.
There are many chains. The first binds the ability of the state and its local governments to direct their own policy. For example, since the federal government began offering its gold to the states for education, it has gained control of over 50% of the decisions made in local school districts. And that control came with bargain prices – federal dollars account for less than 5% of the funding in that local district.
The second binds the states and local governments financially. For example, when the federal c rime bill came out in the 1990’s, it provided money for 100,000 additional policemen to be hired throughout the country. The federal press releases and talking points strongly emphasized this wonderful program that would enhance law enforcement at the local level – sending the clear message that increased federal involvement in state and local criminal justice systems was a great benefit. Any state that would choose not to participate in the program obviously did not care about keeping its citizens safe.
What was not mentioned was a small detail of this program – the federal funding ran out in 2 to 5 years. So all the policemen hired under this program would be fired when the federal dollars ran out. Unless the state either raised taxes, or applied for a new federal program. If the state fired the policemen, it was not “tough on crime”; if it tried to raise taxes it faced the wrath of the citizens; but if it applied for the next federal program it could avoid both of these nasty consequences, even though it was accepting more federal chains in the process.
With each new application, the state was re-agr eeing to comply with all former federal policy directives, and then accepting the new ones that came with the new funding.
And every time the cycle was repeated, the states became more like the miner in one of the old coal towns, who mined 16 tons and became a “little bit older and deeper in debt”.
Until the South Carolina Court decision, everyone focused on the gold and pretended not to see the chains. That pretense is no longer possible. Even golden chains are chains.
Now that we see them, the question is what will we choose to do about them?