Editor's Note: We are pleased to present this commentary by former New Jersey Congressman and Governor James J. Florio. His "op-eds" will be republished here from time to time as they are available. Our thanks to my former boss for sharing these with us.
To many, the unsatisfactory conclusion to the impeachment trial of Donald Trump and the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol he inspired to stop certification of election results, has appropriately focused attention on the former president’s conduct. As reprehensible as that conduct was, let’s not forget that his irresponsible actions and demagogic skills fell on a very receptive audience.
This signals that something is fundamentally wrong with many of the ways our government is working or — more accurately — not working. For one sure thing, in all of our states, governors are being called upon to fund functions that are clearly beyond their states’ financial capabilities. The pandemic is the most glaring example. Clearly, the federal government should have stepped in much earlier with the resources needed to combat a once in a lifetime virus. But the pandemic is far from the only example. The cost of higher education, health care, mass transit and government employee pensions are among others that outstrip the ability of states to do what needs to be done so everyone can thrive.
Once you realize what a big problem this is, you can’t help but focus attention on the U.S. Constitution, which since its adoption in 1787, has frequently been interpreted to largely assign to our state and local governments the responsibilities of dealing with issues of a magnitude that could not be imagined 234 years ago. The result often is counter-productive competition for resources among the 50 states to the detriment of their residents and the entire nation. Ours is a system that disregards the importance of efficiency and cost effectiveness in favor of a misguided emphasis on autonomy that rings hollow in the face of catastrophes like the failure of the entirely in-state power grid in Texas to provide millions of people with power when cold weather froze gas pipelines. At times like that, what is autonomy but the equivalent of shoveling sand against the tide? You can’t win.
It’s time to place greater emphasis on defining a number of problems as national in scope — and requiring national-level financing to solve them. Having states finance their share of national problems largely on the basis of local conditions and resources creates a patchwork of “solutions” that too often fail. If coal prices are down, school children and people needing healthcare in West Virginia and Wyoming suffer. When oil prices tumble, police and firefighters are laid off in Louisiana and Alaska. It’s the same with tourism in Nevada and Florida and financial services in New York and New Jersey.
Having to rely on resources that rise or fall depending on economic conditions within a state’s borders is a highly imperfect way to meet human needs and make the public investments needed for equitable results. Meanwhile, states offer all kinds of tax breaks to lure businesses away from other states in the false hope that poaching will be the answer, though it never is.
Moving to a more broad-based national system of taxation than exists today would free states from their dependency on fluctuating factors and bring a higher degree of uniformity and equity to revenue-raising at the national level — to say nothing about greater amounts of revenue. A carbon-based tax or a European-styled value-added tax are examples of possible options.
The key to improving our government’s responsiveness is our willingness to review what works and what doesn’t. And that’s not just about taxes. Consider voting rights, where the power put into their hands has some states making voting more accessible and others trying mightily to find ways to make it harder to vote.
Whatever the issue, applying old, increasingly ineffective or inequitable policies to new problems can only make matters worse and cause additional problems. It is time to review 1787 assumptions in light of 21st century responsibilities.
I recently had a conversation with a man who bitterly complained that he and his wife both work full time and still can’t make ends meet. “What the hell is going on; what am I supposed to do?” he asked. “Who is to blame”? I suspect he would be receptive to Donald Trump’s “answers” than to a discussion of state and local tax systems. But it’s a discussion we need to have if we’re honest about solving problems.
Our new President’s challenge is to lay out, explore and present the policy options that are available along with his recommendations in order to build a consensus.
This task is not for the faint-hearted. Some upholders of the status quo will fight to the death (usually for money) — think tobacco, coal, assault weapons. But, the end goal --- preserving our democracy --- is worth the struggle.