Everyone talks about devolution, but ...

Monday, April 14, 2003

KENNETT, Mo. -- In case you're wondering how the title of this column comes out, I'll spell it out completely: Everybody talks about needed devolution but no one does anything about it.

Devolution is not some sinister trick that's been written into the U.S. Constitution and is glowingly endorsed at least once every four years by both political parties. In fact, if you scratch any politician around, you'll hear nothing but praise for this pie-in-the-sky concept that power, autonomy and flexibility should reside as far down in the governmental system as possible.

It would be unusual, however, to find any political figure in the country, in Jefferson City or any county courthouse, who is willing to act on the basis of these beliefs, even at the expense of his own political authority. For the basic roadblock is politicians and their belief that whatever political power rests in their offices, voluntarily giving it away becomes tantamount to political impotency. And no one we've ever met in politics likes to consider, much less endorse, the abdication of whatever power they might have inherited by occupying their particular public office. Neuters don't voluntarily neuter themselves, at least not in the political land of the free, not-so-brave and highly ambitious.

I have an idea how a true devolutionist might work, although I must confess this, like the snipe I searched for while a Cub Scout, is all in my mind, for I've never actually seen one. A red-white-and-blue devolutionist would be a president who refused to impose billion-dollar burdens on the states without offering money to pay for them. Or a governor who didn't find it clever policy to avoid a tax increase at the state level by forcing one on counties or municipalities in his state.

We have no shortage of politicians in America, or in our own state, who profess to believe in devolution, and refer to it regularly. What we don't have are public figures willing to follow the concept wherever it might lead. When it's only a matter of theory, devolution commands virtually unanimous acceptance across the ideological spectrum. The problem is that the theory doesn't invoke any support at all when political organizations -- such as the Missouri Legislature or a county commission or the federal Congress -- must decide how to fund a program the voters obviously want and need. That's when the folks who promised to save us decide it's time to abandon ship -- and, boy, do they abandon it.

Classic example: A few years ago the state highway commission concluded that it couldn't continue to build roads at the pace the public was angrily demanding and so entered into an agreement to assure passage of a relatively small levy increase to assume maintenance and upkeep responsibility for thousands of miles of rural roads, formerly cared for by the counties. For the state, it was an agreement made in hell since it involved the expenditure of far too many gas-tax dollars, thus creating a statewide funding shortage that prevented the highway agency from meeting its obligation to a growing need for more and more improved interstate-type roads throughout Missouri.

Examples of this now-you-see-it-now-you-don't game abide at every level of American government and far more frequently than the general public realizes. Every time the Missouri Legislature decides to lower appropriations for a statewide program, the responsibility for maintaining it falls to the next tier of governance. A statewide welfare decision not to maintain existing payments automatically transfer these costs to the governing units in each county. The same is true for matters dealing with roads, environmental protection, criminal systems, public and mental health services, consumer protection needs and protection and even public education offerings.

Those who can still remember the eight years of the Reagan administration will recall his invocation that the best government is government close to the people, that the states are closer to the people than Washington, and local governments are closer still. The last GOP platform, voted in 2000, promised to restore the force of that 10th Amendment -- which says that any power not specifically granted to the federal government belong to the states. (Attn.: U.S. Supreme Court.)

Within a year after the passage of this resolution, the GOP majorities in both the House and Senate enacted a bill forbidding states to collect sales tax on Internet transactions, without any explanation why this was a federal government's business. None was offered by most Missourians serving in Congress at the time, including the southwest Missourian who was to become the House Whip and the St. Louisan who would again declare his interest in becoming our next president. And it was a devolution-professing Democratic president, a former governor, who signed, amid much fanfare, the measure into law.

In countless jurisdictions throughout Missouri, there is a great likelihood that local governments will have to increase property taxes just to pay for the services they are required to deliver. Those who take part in this infamous pass-the-buck scheme will take plenty of heat and become the targets of inflamed taxpayers -- but they have no choice under current circumstances. No one is dumb enough not to be able to recognize that those who will have to ask for these higher taxes had no voice in requiring local entities to perform certain services and programs. There is a lot of distance between those who buy into mandated schemes and those who responsibility it is to finance them.

Whoever said life was fair hasn't been paying attention.

Jack Stapleton is the editor of Missouri News & Editorial Service.

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