Commentary - #2 June 10, 2004

Ronald Reagan?s Passing

The news this week has been dominated, and properly so, by Ronald Reagan?s passing, so, along with many others, we might pause to consider his legacy. One aspect that has received little, if any attention is his advocacy of decentralization ? the need to move power and money out of Washington down to state and local levels. Great progress was made on this front at the state level throughout the ?80?s and ?90?s but it has long since stalled and even gotten into reverse insofar as the local level is concerned. Federal aid to localities does not come without strings attached. It is task, program or project-specific, on a formula or competitive basis. State aid to localities is usually the first to be cut when, as recently, times get financially tough. All this is ironic as well as contrary to the Reagan view of what is best for America. As President Reagan recognized along with several of our other great Presidents, from Thomas Jefferson on down, local government is (or should be) closest to the people. It is the locale of government, moreover, where people can see how their efforts to improve politics, government and their communities really make a difference.

Decentralization was once called ?The New Federalism.? Note that this is not the same as ?devolution.? Many people confuse the two. The difference is that devolution is federal or state government ?devolving? functions on local authorities; that is, passing down responsibility for carrying out certain tasks, programs or policies according to guidelines that are set forth by the higher (devolving) authorities. Thus, there is little or no local discretion as to how things are done. If discretion to adapt the higher level program to local circumstances is needed (often the case), the local government would need to seek a waiver from some higher-level authority ? if waivers are even allowed, which they may not be. Often, responsibility for a program is passed down without adequate resources to do the job. Local officials call this an ?unfunded mandate.?

Decentralization, on the other hand, is where power and money are passed down to local authorities in open-ended ways so they have maximum discretion as to how to spend money and operate programs. Remember General Revenue Sharing?

A basic thesis of the new book on people?s political participation, WE, THE PEOPLE?, honors the Reagan legacy. It is that decentralization is needed to encourage people to ?take back their politics? because people are much more likely to get involved when they can see how they can ?make a difference? and they are much more likely to see the difference in their own backyards ? their neighborhoods and localities. Thus, let?s ask all political candidates this year how they would honor the Reagan legacy and increase your opportunities to make a difference by decentralizing federal and state programs.

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