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North Dakota marching to its own drummer

By Staff | Mar 20, 2009

The U. S. Constitution came into existence because the 13 states were all marching to 13 different drummers, exploiting the latitude left to them by the Articles of Confederation. Chaos reigned until delegates met in Philadelphia to compel states to consider the well-being of the country as a whole. So they drafted the Constitution, a government regulation of immense proportions.

To the greatest extent possible within the Constitution, states have continued to march to their own drummers down through the decades. This inclination has become very pronounced as the country tries to fight economic disaster with the huge $787 billion stimulus program.

At national meetings, state and local officials pleaded for maximum flexibility in the stimulus program. “We know our states better than bureaucrats in Washington,” they sang in unison.Nevertheless, the federal leadership felt it necessary to lay down some general guidelines for spending the money.

The response of states to the guidelines tells us why it is necessary for the national government to circumscribe state and local flexibility if a national objective is to be achieved.(Dj vu! It’s 1787 and we’re back in Philadelphia.)

Disregarding the need to achieve a national goal, states are treating the $787 billion stimulus effort as some sort of buffet, picking the portions they like and rejecting the rest. South Carolina doesn’t want money for schools; other states want money for debt reduction; some cities are plotting to trade money, etc. Just about every state and local government is conspiring to circumvent the general plan.

North Dakota is no different. Since the state really doesn’t need help, some legislators are proposing to use the federal money to pay for projects already in the governor’s budget and bank the stimulus money for the next biennium. That won’t increase economic activity very much.

Other legislators oppose the extension of unemployment benefits, fearing that it may commit the state to spending its own money when the stimulus money runs out. This fear presupposes that future legislative sessions will not be endowed with sufficient wisdom to respond to the problem, if it occurs.

Some members of Congress complained that certain parts of the program were not focused on stimulus. That is certainly an arguable point. But by the time the states and local governments get through with their diversions and machinations, the stimulus program will be even less focused.

The manner in which states plan to implement the stimulus package explains why so many federal regulations come with federal funding. When there are few rules, all kinds of strange things happen as states keep marching to their own drummers. The stimulus program will end up with more than a few bridges to nowhere.

Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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