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Are State Governments Really Better?

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Many small-government conservatives believe that the way to cut down the federal government is to let state governments take over some federal government functions.

For example, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, currently running for the Republican presidential nomination, has proposed turning the design and administration of social welfare programs like Medicaid entirely to the states. He has also proposed eliminating FEMA and all federal disaster relief programs to let the states take care of their own disaster relief. He believes states would have a better understanding of what their citizens need that the federal government does.

Because state governments are closer to the people they govern, the theory goes, they are more responsive to the people and know what they need better than the politicians in far-away Washington. Also, because they operate on a smaller scale, state governments are less likely to become oppressive and corrupt.  That’s the theory, anyway.

In fact, state governments tend to be more corrupt and less “transparent” than the federal government. That’s the finding of the State Integrity Investigation, a project of the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity.

The State Integrity Investigation found that state lawmakers often get away with ethics violations far more easily than Washington politicians do. This is partly because people aren’t paying as much attention to state governments as they pay to the federal government. But the report also found there are states in which ethics panels haven’t met in years, and charges of ethical violations are simply cleared automatically, without investigation.

In Washington, at least, it seems legislatures of one party and forever investigating the other party, and such investigations are reported in news outlets throughout the country. Not so with state government.

Many state governments get little oversight from the public or the press and essentially operate behind closed doors.  Further, lobbyists have more unimpeded access to lawmakers in many states than they do to federal lawmakers. And this fact has not escaped interest groups who want to influence how laws are written.

For example, over the past couple of years people noticed that nearly identical — as in word-for-word with just the name of the state changed — bills were being introduced in several states at the same time. Many of these bills loosened consumer and environmental protection laws. Others also reformed the states’ personal injury, or “tort” laws, making it harder for citizens to sue companies that have injured them.

It turns out that the bills were written by an organization called American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. ALEC is organized and funded by several big corporations such as Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries. ALEC invites state lawmakers and their families to all-expenses-paid “conferences” in luxury resorts and gives them the text of bills they want passed. They also teach the lawmakers how to talk about the law to sell it to their constituents.

Last month the governor of Minnesota vetoed four bills that had been written by ALEC. The bills would have made it much harder for citizens to file personal injury lawsuits, meaning that the laws were written to protect ALEC’s corporate sponsors from liability. “I’ve found that Minnesotans do not want their laws written by the lobbyists of big corporations,” Gov. Mark Dayton said.

But hundreds of ALEC bills have been introduced in state legislatures over the past couple of years. More than 50 ALEC bills were introduced in Virginia alone. And a lot of those bills became law without the public knowing much about it.

ALEC wasn’t the first such organization to influence state legislatures. For example, there are a many state-level  “tort reform” groups that present themselves as grass-root citizens’ groups, but which are really organized and funded by frequently sued industries.

In fact, the entire “tort reform” movement initially was the creation of tobacco companies and asbestos manufacturers, who got the ball rolling back in the 1980s. The companies were being sued by people suffering from mesothelioma and other lung cancers.

Generally these “organizations” are whipped up by hired public relations firms, and their paid “citizen activists” are lobbyists by Washington standards. Again, such groups have been responsible for getting state tort reform laws passed all over the country.