Stateline Story

States' Rights Take Center Stage at NCSL

  • August 16, 2005
  • By Eric Kelderman

State legislators kicked off their four-day national conference calling for less federal intrusion and fewer costly mandates from Washington, D.C.

At their annual meeting, leaders of the National Conference of State Legislatures renewed criticism of new federal standards for driver's licenses as costly and unnecessary. And they brought fresh charges of congressional meddling over proposals that would limit state and local regulations on eminent domain, land use and economic development.

In a new report, NCSL tallied up $51 billion in costs imposed on states under new federal rules in fiscal years 2004 and 2005 and identified 160 pending bills that also would impose new costs for states.

In a new publication called the "Preemption Monitor," NCSL identified nearly 30 bills pending in Congress that would limit states' regulatory powers over health care, land use, technology and other areas, according to the bipartisan group, which researches policy and lobbies for the nation's 7,382 state legislators.

"There is an effort within the halls of Congress to centralize public policy decision-making within the Washington beltway," Maryland Del. John A. Hurson (D), outgoing president of NCSL, said at a news conference.

"When Congress imposes a one-size-fits-all approach to a policy problem, they fail to recognize the individualism and uniqueness of each state, threatening the collective strength of the states," he said.

State Sen. Michael Balboni (R) of New York lambasted Congress' REAL ID Act, which intrudes on states' traditional authority to issue driver's licenses by setting a uniform national requirement for documents needed to get a license and requires states to verify the authenticity of those papers. The act, signed into law in May, requires states to enforce federal immigration policy and will cost states an estimated $9 billion to $13 billion over six years, Balboni said.

Illinois state Sen. Steven J. Rauschenberger (R) said that there already is a national identification card -- the passport -- and that driver's licenses are meant to ensure driving proficiency, not homeland security.

Raushchenberger also derided Congress' reaction to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kelo v. New Lon don, which affirmed state and local government authority to use eminent-domain powers to take private land for economic development.

While Rauschenberger disagreed with part of the justices' decision, he criticized Congress for considering several bills that would prescribe a federal fix that would preempt states' ability to determine how and when property can be taken for public purpose.

REAL ID and eminent domain are only the latest in a long list of federal intrusions, legislators said. State sovereignty has eroded steadily under President George W. Bush (R), a former Texas governor, and Republicans who now control Congress but who touted states' rights as they rose to power in the mid-1990s, Hurson said.

Leading the list of federal power-grabs is the No Child Left Behind Act, Bush's signature education initiative, which requires that states annually test students in math and reading and prescribes punishment for schools and districts that miss academic benchmarks.

Not only has the education law reduced local control, but the testing and other requirements will cost states more than $26 billion from fiscal years 2004 through 2006, according to NCSL.Several states and the nation's largest teachers union began to fight back this year.

The Republican-controlled Legislature in Utah authorized schools to ignore NCLB mandates that conflict with the state's own testing regimen or that require state dollars to meet them. The Texas commissioner of education unilaterally decided to disregard NCLB requirements for testing students with learning disabilities.

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest teachers union, and school districts in Michigan, Texas and Vermont sued the U.S. Department of Education April 20, alleging it has failed to fund NCLB adequately.

Connecticut's attorney general said he will file a similar lawsuit on behalf of the state Legislature, and Maine lawmakers in May passed a bill ordering their state attorney general to sue the federal government if the state determines NCLB is not fully funded.