To-Do, or Not-To-Do

Ken Gorrell

by Ken Gorrell,
Weirs Times Contributing Writer

The new year brought new state laws across the land, new experiments in the “laboratories of democracy.” That phrase, coined by Progressive jurist Louis Brandeis, sounds like a strength of our federal system: Fifty states, implementing laws and regulations that fit each one’s unique circumstances, within the framework of our national Constitution.
It would be a strength, if not for the fact that some people – like Brandeis himself – see these experiments as merely a first step. Instead of letting states innovate, their ultimate goal is to impose some experiments on the rest of us, using one state’s “success” as justification. The worst and most recent example of this was ObamaCare.
Only one state had experimented with a program similar to the ObamaCare blueprint: Massachusetts. President Obama’s touted his now-discredited law as a national extension of Republican Governor Romney’s state health insurance experiment. When he ran against Obama’s reelection, Romney was in the awkward position of advocating the repeal of a federal law that had been based on his own signature achievement as governor.
RomneyCare wasn’t successful, yet the president and congressional Democrats covered their ObamaCare lies in part by invoking Massachusetts as democracy’s laboratory.
A valid experiment must be replicable under similar conditions. But our states are not similar enough to justify the federalization of one state’s attempt at policy innovation.
Geography, demographics, and history all play parts in making our states unique. Even in small and relatively homogeneous New England, each state has distinctive characteristics. I like to think that such as Bernie Sanders could never be elected to high office in New Hampshire. We have a very different tax structure than Taxachussetts. Connecticut seems intent on following in the footsteps of near-bankrupt Illinois, rather than applying the lessons of small-government in the Granite State.
NH ranked #1 for economic freedom in a 2017 Fraser Institute report, followed by Florida, Texas, and South Dakota. Four very different states, but on Fraser’s measures of government spending, taxes, and labor market freedom, we are similar. At the other end of the spectrum, the least-free state was New York, at the bottom with California, New Mexico, and West Virginia. Again, states that otherwise have little in common share that ignoble distinction.
American federalism works best when the federal government allows states wide latitude in addressing problems that seem common only on the surface. Public education is a good example. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont consistently rank high for education outcomes, while D.C., Mississippi, and New Mexico are consistently at the bottom. Kids are kids, and parents want the best for them. But what keeps NH at the top is unlikely to work in Mississippi, and what might help kids in the Bayou State could be a drag on students in the Granite State.
The decades-long trend in consolidating education-policy making within the federal Department of Education goes a long way to explaining why, as a nation, the US ranks middle-of-the-pack in international assessments. Education reform must recognize that one size does not fit all.
The same holds true for the hot-button topic of Medicaid reform. Kentucky’s early-out-the-gate waiver request, approved by the Trump Administration, includes a first-ever work requirement, a six-month ban from the program for those who commit welfare fraud, and an end to retroactive eligibility. Some or all of those program changes may work in New Hampshire. Medicaid reform should be high on the To-Do list for our state legislature and governor, but they should be free to request federal waivers tailored to our Medicaid population.
Other contenders for our To-Do list: Michigan’s teacher pension reform plan that shifts toward the defined-contribution plans familiar to private-sector employees to address funding shortfalls in the current plan; and Tennessee’s recently enacted free speech protections for student and faculty on public college campuses.
As important as a legislative To-Do list is the Not-To-Do list. To address declining college enrollment, New Mexico is toying with the idea of forcing high school students to apply for college as a condition of graduation. In this, they are following the “lead” of Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who last year made post-high school plans a graduation requirement. They may increase enrollment, but the drop-out rate as well.
The usual suspects supply a potpourri of labor laws to avoid: Washington joins a handful of states requiring employers offer paid sick leave; New York imposes 12-week paid family leave benefits; and Nevada mandates employers offer leave to workers who have been, or have family members who have been, victims of domestic violence. Eighteen states are raising their minimum wage.
New Hampshire, #1 in economic freedom, should avoid those experiments.