Stateline Story

AGs Optimistic on Better State-Fed Relations

  • March 10, 2009
  • By John Gramlich

State attorneys general, who this month attended their first meeting with new U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, say they are hopeful they can forge better relations with Washington, D.C., on environmental protection, sex offender policy and other subjects that became state-federal battlegrounds during the Bush administration.

In interviews with Stateline.org during and after their annual meeting in the nation's capital March 2-4 - where Holder delivered a speech and fielded questions - state attorneys general of both parties said there were early signs that the Obama administration is working to improve relations in several areas of interest to the states.

Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler, a Democrat, hailed the administration's January decision to review a Bush-era Environmental Protection Agency order preventing the Free State and 13 others, led by California, from setting stricter auto emissions limits than those set by the federal government. The order prompted court challenges from the states.

The Obama administration's decision, Gansler said, is an indication that states will no longer have to "sue the EPA to protect the environment."

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, praised Obama for including more than $2 billion in funding for anti-drug efforts in the recently approved economic stimulus package. The money comes in the form of direct grants to states and localities to pay for drug task forces, prosecutors and other law enforcement needs.

Suthers questioned why anti-drug funds were included in what was billed strictly as an economic stimulus plan, but he noted that he and other state officials had been asking for the money for months. The Bush administration repeatedly sought to eliminate the grant program that Suthers and other state attorneys general pushed.

Beyond what attorneys general are saying about the new administration, there are other signs that the Obama administration is working to mitigate some longstanding state concerns.

Holder, for example, last month followed through on an Obama campaign promise by announcing that the Justice Department would no longer execute raids on marijuana dispensaries in the 13 states that have authorized use of the drug for medical purposes.

The raids, carried out by the Drug Enforcement Agency with regularity during the Bush administration, have been frustrating for many state officials as residents have been arrested and prosecuted for activities that are legal under state law.

Dan Bernath, a spokesman with the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group that supports the legalization of medical marijuana, estimated that the federal government carried out about 50 raids a year on state-authorized marijuana dispensaries - primarily in California - during the Bush administration.

Sex offender policy also could be revised in the states' favor under President Obama.

For more than a year, state attorneys general and other law enforcement officials have struggled with aspects of the Adam Walsh Act, a 2006 federal law that requires states to adopt the same standards for registering and tracking sex offenders by July - or risk losing millions of dollars in Justice Department grants.

Although state officials agree with the aim of the Adam Walsh Act, they say they lack the resources to meet its many demands, which include classifying all sex offenders' levels of risk and standardizing what information they include in their online registries. Some states also have balked at a requirement that they register and track some juveniles as young as 14.

During his remarks to the attorneys general March 2, Holder acknowledged state officials' problems with the law, promising that the federal government "is committed to working with the states to make the Adam Walsh Act requirements as flexible as we can," although he did not address specific concerns.

Hawaii Attorney General Mark Bennett (R) said he felt encouraged by Holder's comments.

"We're hopeful that they'll take a flexible approach on Adam Walsh, and I suspect I speak for all (attorneys general) in that regard," Bennett said.

Despite the optimism, many attorneys general were quick to point out that there still are likely to be disagreements between states and the federal government. The National Association of Attorneys General in December issued a briefing paper to Obama officials, highlighting subjects that concerned state officials, led by federal preemption of state laws.

Another concern, according to Suthers, the Colorado attorney general, is the set-up of the Executive Working Group on Prosecutorial Relations, an organization of local, state and federal prosecutors who meet about three times a year. A member of the group, Suthers said states want a more prominent seat at the table during the meetings, which he characterized as being driven by the federal government without enough input from the states.

"There's been a tendency to let the (Justice Department) drive the agenda," he said.

For some attorneys general, meanwhile, Holder's speech this month itself was a positive development. Holder stressed the importance of his relationship with the states, telling the attorneys general, "You have my personal commitment to building a genuine and open partnership with my colleagues in the states."

Gansler, the Maryland attorney general, said Holder's attendance at the meeting marked an abrupt and welcome break from the Bush administration.

"We had a hard time, during the last eight years, having the attorney general or the president come to address us," Gansler said. "These are the chief lawyers in each of the states. Ten of them are running for governor this year. These are people that the administration ought to have good relationships with and maintain contact with. I think that communication was dropped last time, and it was very frustrating for the Republicans and Democrats alike."