FILLING IN FOR THE FEDS: Congress' inability to get things done leaves states carrying a heavy load.

Author:Greenblatt, Alan

Washington was broken long before impeachment got underway. The current Democratic House and Republican Senate have failed to reach agreement on almost any major policy change. During the first two years of Donald Trump's presidency, when Republicans controlled everything, there were no notable enactments beyond the 2017 tax package and the 2018 criminal justice reform bill. Even the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the White House's replacement for the North America Free Trade Agreement,

left much of NAFTA intact.

The same lack of legislative productivity characterized most of Barack Obama's time as president. In fact, it's been about a decade since any real, innovative or ambitious policy achievement has come out of our nation's capital. The situation is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. Either party could take both Congress and the White House this year, but the Senate is looking much more likely to end up tied than controlled by one party with a filibuster-proof, 60-seat majority.

Congressional gridlock opens up opportunities for states to experiment, and not everyone thinks that's a bad thing. For most of American history, says Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R), the president of NCSL, power has been shifting inexorably toward Washington, D.C., with groups preferring to deal with a single venue rather than 50 separate state capitols. He welcomes a reversal of that trend.

"My preference has been, and always will be, that states are where the bulk of public policy should occur," he says. "I prefer to have that contest of ideas, where one state advances or falls behind because of the policies local officials are putting into place."

Perennial Time-Consumers

In 2020 and beyond, legislators' time will be monopolized, as it always has been, by traditional tasks such as budgeting and taxation, and education and health care funding. And, this year, with the census coming up, preparing for redistricting will be a front-of-mind matter in most legislatures.

Although there seems to be help available for new federal priorities such as opioid addiction and school safety, Trump's budgets have proposed deep cuts to other domestic programs. These generally have not gotten traction in Congress, but state lawmakers recognize they can't count on infusions of federal cash any more for longstanding programs. And that trend is likely to continue.

Legislators will face several perennial issues in the coming years that Washington has either failed to address or refused to fund:

* Infrastructure Funding. The federal Highway Trust Fund has been falling short by billions of dollars for years, yet the federal gas tax hasn't been increased since 1993. Knowing they need a reliable source of increased revenue, 30 state legislatures have raised their own gas taxes since 2013. "People should not mistake the increase in investment at the state level as a substitute for increasing investment at the federal level," says Jim Tymon, executive director of the American Association of State High-way and Transportation Officials.

The federal highway funding bill is due for reauthorization this year and state lawmakers are hoping their regular source of transportation funding won't be delayed for years, as happened the last time. There are reasons for optimism. A Senate committee approved a $287 billion package in July last year, and in November, Congress repealed a $7.6 billion rescission of highway dollars...

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