Since our “modest proposal” essay was published in the Washington Post on Feb. 19, we have heard mostly support, but some criticism. The critics tend to question Utah’s ability to assume complete responsibility for education, transportation and Medicaid, and manage these important functions of government properly.
We assert that not only can we run these programs adequately without federal oversight and interference, but we can operate them more effectively, more efficiently, and serve citizens better.
It seems that many in Congress maintain an elitist attitude about government: The bigger the better, the more centralized the better, and all public policy sophistication and intelligence emanates from the federal level and is sprinkled like pixie dust on state and local governments through federal oversight and mandates.
If those assertions were true, then why is the national level of government overwhelmed in debt, mired in gridlock and partisanship, and wholly unable to resolve the biggest problems that face our nation?
Most state and local governments, while certainly facing plenty of challenges of their own, are models of good governance compared to the federal government. In general, state governments are better managed, have better fiscal controls, are more innovative, and reflect the will of the people far more than the federal government.
In Utah, for example, we have sophisticated financial controls in place. We have been named the country’s best-managed state for several years. We balance our state and local budgets every year, no matter how hard it is. We enjoy an AAA bond rating. Like many states, our public employee pension fund has taken a significant hit thanks to the drooping economy. But in our current legislative session we are forthrightly fixing it, despite strong protests from public employee unions.
We bond for some large infrastructure projects, but our repayment schedules are very short. We obviously don’t borrow money for on-going operations (as does the federal government). We don’t hide money or play shell games with various accounts. We follow solid accounting and management principles. We have strong auditing.
We hardly need to recite the litany of irresponsible and disastrous fiscal practices at the federal level—the overwhelming debt being increased every second of every day that will be dumped on our children and grandchildren, the trillions in entitlement programs promised to essentially every American that are unfunded and unsustainable, the borrowed billions used for daily operations of government.
The president and Congress are in such a dire predicament, wholly incapable of controlling themselves, that they now want to appoint an independent super-commission to impose the discipline that they lack to restrain deficit spending and control entitlements. They admit they are addicted, can’t stop themselves, and need outside intervention.
So why should the American people trust these admitted spending addicts in faraway Washington to manage their schools, highways and health care, rather than their own governors, state legislators, mayors, city council members, and county officials?
Well, the reality is, they don’t.
A recent statewide poll in Utah, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, asked 600 registered voters two questions that reveal the low esteem in which our citizens hold the federal government.
“Which level of government do you trust most to spend your tax dollars wisely?” Only a tiny 4% said they most trust the federal government. Some 27% chose state government; 18%, county governments; and 34%, city governments.
A second question produced similar results: “Which level of government do you think best understands the public needs and should make decisions about raising and lowering taxes?” Only 6% chose the federal government; 39%, state government; 22%, county governments; 25%, city governments.
Even among Democrats and liberals, the number choosing the federal government was extremely low. Citizens overwhelmingly trust government close to home over the federal government.
It might be news to federal officials, but our public administrators at the state level are just as smart, skilled, and proficient as they are. Our professionals attend the same public administration schools, go to many of the same conferences, read the same professional journals, as do their federal counterparts. Our administrators belong to professional organizations where they meet with their peers, learn the latest management techniques, and exchange information about best practices.
Our focus is not just inward. We work collaboratively with other states on uniform state laws and we participate fully with the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments, and other state-based associations that provide valuable training, networking and collaboration.
Our highway officials manage multi-billion-dollar programs using sophisticated project management techniques and technology, and they bring in projects on time and under budget. We now, for example, replace gigantic freeway bridges literally overnight instead of in months or years, because we construct them at “bridge farms” and roll them into place.
We complete projects using only state dollars faster and more efficiently than projects with federal money involved, due to federal red tape. Our Transportation Commission estimates that a federal transportation dollar is only worth 85 cents compared to a state transportation dollar.
In a recent large highway construction procurement, Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) used a “fixed-price, best-design” bid procedure, setting a defined price that fostered competition among design-build teams to propose innovative ways to provide the most length and greatest number of improvements for the price. This method resulted in the project extending from the expected 14.8 miles with eight interchanges, to a 24-mile long project with 11 interchanges.
UDOT is a national leader in using efficient ways to tackle transportation challenges. Safety has improved with traffic fatalities at a 35-year low, despite dramatically more highway miles traveled.
We don’t need federal red tape and interference to run a great transportation system. We would be better off keeping at home the federal transportation tax dollars we now send to Washington.
The same is true in health care and education. We face many challenges in education. But despite having the largest families and highest number of children, on a percentage basis, in the country, we are fully capable of providing excellent education for our children, including special needs and disadvantaged children, without federal programs and intervention. We spend the lowest amount per pupil in the country, have among the largest class sizes, and yet our test scores are above average in almost every category.
We are innovating with a robust charter school program, online learning, parent participation programs, and statewide accountability.
In health care, we have strong legislative and executive support for one of the nation’s most aggressive and advanced market-based reform programs. We are far ahead of federal health care reform, although federal regulations are interfering with our efforts. Utah currently has the lowest health care costs in the country. We are implementing a state insurance exchange program and a health information exchange allowing health care providers to access basic medical information about their patients anywhere, any time. We will become the first state in the country to be able to analyze episodes of care derived from statewide health insurance claims.
We love our country and we are loyal and patriotic citizens of the United States of America. We support a strong federal government in the areas where it rightly should have primacy. But we believe the federal government has centralized authority and expanded its role far beyond its ability perform well, resulting the current sad state of affairs at the federal level.
In a country as big and diverse as America, all the principles of good governance, good management and plain old common sense tell us that government close to home should be responsible for basic, everyday services to citizens.
David Clark is speaker of the Utah House of Representatives. Michael Waddoups is president of the Utah Senate. The views expressed by guest bloggers on the Foundry do not necessarily reflect the views of the Heritage Foundation.