The NCSL Blog

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By Anna Smith

The power-sharing relationship between the states and the federal government—the system we know as federalism—is as strained today as it was when the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787.

Illustration for federalism storyAmericans were wary of federal power right from the start. After all, as Max Behlke and Julie Lays write in the new issue of NCSL’s State Legislatures magazine, they had fought hard for the principle of state sovereignty during the Revolutionary War and were hesitant to replace a king with another dictator in the form of a dominant federal government.

Scholars have argued over the years about which way the balance of power has tipped—toward the states or toward the feds. Behlke and Lays look at where federalism is today. From health care to education, tax policy to the environment, many feel the federal government has too often in recent years stepped over the line into state authority, inserting itself in nearly every area of governance, they write.

State Legislatures magazine July coverThe U.S. Supreme Court might have tipped the balance slightly toward the states this year with rulings in their favor on sports betting and internet taxes.

In Murphy v. NCAA, the high court struck down the federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which banned states from legalizing sports betting. Murphy gives oversight of gambling to the individual states.

In South Dakota v. Wayfair, the court ruled states can require out-of-state sellers to collect and remit sales tax on purchases made by in-state consumers. This decision, which overturned the court’s 1992 Quill decision, will let states enforce their existing sales tax laws on all sellers, not just in-state, job-creating businesses.

“This is a tremendous, yet long overdue, victory for federalism, main street retailers, states, and for the National Conference of State Legislatures,” said William T. Pound, executive director of NCSL, which had long advocated to let states collect the taxes. Pound’s full remarks also appear in this month’s magazine.

Where is federalism headed? The authors offer clues by tracing the history of the state-federal relationship right back to where it started: with the U.S. Constitution.

Anna Smith is an intern in NCSL’s Communications Division.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.