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July 26, 2010

State moves crucial to federal leaders

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell address the opening general session of NCSL's 2010 Legislative Summit

LOUISVILLE, KY. Congressional leaders from the two major parties may not agree on many policy issues, but they concur that the voices of state legislatures are intrinsically linked to the actions of federal officials.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell took different approaches to states’ roles in the federal system of government as they spoke to the opening general session of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ 2010 Legislative Summit. Pelosi urged state lawmakers to work with their federal counterparts to ensure their vital needs are understood, McConnell pushed the need for Washington to leave more domestic policymaking to state capitols.

The state-federal relationship is at a critical juncture, they said.

“Our conversations must be ongoing, and based in the reality that the success of our states and your economies is essential to our nation’s success,” Pelosi said. With unemployment, immigration, health care, energy and other issues dominating the headlines, she said, legislators must make sure federal leaders understand the choices states face and how Washington decisions affect state budgets.

“I am told that this year more than 30 states’ budgets are predicated on continuing FMAP enhanced funding,” she noted, referring to the federal matching funds for social services, primarily Medicaid. Legislation to continue that level has not yet passed the Senate.

Indeed, McConnell said, total federal funding of state budgets has steadily risen over the last 50 years such that Washington’s support now makes up more than half of all state budget revenues. It’s “more than state income tax, more than sales tax, more than property tax. That is an astonishing development.”

Both acknowledged the role of states as trendsetters for federal programs. Pelosi chalked up recent federal health care legislation to the statewide universal insurance program passed by the Massachusetts legislature earlier in the decade, while McConnell credited the landmark bipartisan 1996 welfare bill to state leaders. “Successful welfare reforms actually didn’t originate in a backroom deal in Washington,” he said. “They were the results of enterprising governors and legislators who were sick of the status quo that trapped generations in poverty, in Wisconsin, Michigan, and elsewhere.

“All of us benefit when states perform their traditional role as laboratories of democracy,” he said. “It is not just a good idea for states to be empowered in this way, it is critical if we hope to solve the many challenges we face.”

Sometimes the two levels move on parallel tracks, Pelosi noted. One NCSL resolution up for debate at the Louisville gathering involves improving career and technical education to better prepare students for the needs of the business community. While education is largely the domain of the states, federal legislation passed last month will also focus on aligning classroom and field education with the job demands of the American economy.

A recurring theme in both speakers’ messages was that the federal government needs to focus on deficit reduction and pay for programs designed in Washington. “In our efforts we must be fiscally responsible,” Pelosi told the gathered state legislators. “You are experts in fiscal soundness, because you have the special responsibility of balancing your budget.

NCSL is a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the states, commonwealths and territories. It provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues and is an effective and respected advocate for the interests of the states in the American federal system.