Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 11.13.15 AMOn Friday, the omnipotent U.S. Department of Education threatened to pull federal funding from public school districts that refuse to fall in line over transgender bathrooms. Many school districts will submit, knowing that they cannot afford to jeopardize their federal cash flow. Setting aside for a moment the broader social debate over the directive, it remains a glaring illustration of just how far federalism has fallen from the days of the Founders. While federal overreach has become commonplace, so has the voluntary surrender of the states’ constitutional authority over matters—something that is rarely acknowledged or discussed as states clamor for more and more federal dollars.

Alabama landed at number three this year in a report ranking the federal dependency of the states. Largely blamed on the state’s poverty rates, Alabama’s dependency on the federal government has reached dangerously high levels. According to the PEW Charitable Trusts, Alabama’s share of federal funds is relative to 30% of the state’s gross domestic product, ten points higher than the national average. Estimates derived from Alabama’s Executive Budget Document and the comptroller’s 2014 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report show that the state received $8.5 billion in federal dollars in 2014. Only ten years prior, Alabama received $5.6 billion. That means that our state is 50% more dependent on the federal government than it was in 2004. These dollars are dedicated to an array of services, the largest of which are Medicaid, education, and human services.

From No Child Left Behind to the Affordable Care Act, thousands of laws have been passed by Congress to lure states into ceding their authority in exchange for federal funding. In addition to the concern that federal funds will deplete over time, Alabamians should be troubled by the fact that the state has given up meaningful control—typically, with little to no debate—over many of its own agencies and programs via the severe mandates and regulations that come with accepting federal dollars.

In his book, Saving Congress from Itself, former U.S. Senator James L. Buckley summarizes the problem: “Those governing our towns and states are no longer in control of a large proportion of the government activities that affect our lives.” “In too many respects,” Buckley notes, “our state officials now serve as administrators of programs designed in Washington by civil servants who are beyond our reach, immune to the discipline of the ballot box, and the least informed about our particular conditions and needs.”

With Alabama’s own funding challenges to deal with, state agency heads and appropriators have little regard for the nation’s fiscal condition and often take a short-sighted approach to accepting federal dollars. In Montgomery, the common refrain is that we ought to take as much “free” federal money as we can get, never mind the mandates that come with it. In the short term, this “free” money means free political points; in other words, politicians can reap the rewards of the spending without making tough budgetary decisions or facing any real opposition. States officials take federal money for things they know taxpayers either cannot or will not pay for. Congress counts on exactly this mentality to push its own agenda down to the states.

Sometimes, the federal government will merely “change the rules” after states have become reliant on the money. As the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office explains, “States and localities may be too deeply invested in particular activities to be able simply to forego federal dollars when new conditions are placed on existing programs and their associated funding streams.” Listening to debate in the State House, it is clear that Alabama is not well-situated to forfeit many federal dollars. As such, a substantial amount of state policymaking will continue to occur in Washington, far removed from what will best serve Alabamians.

Will we continue to carelessly sell our sovereignty—and, with it, our values—to the federal government? Or will we begin to take seriously Chief Justice John Robert’s admonishment when he said, writing for the majority of the Supreme Court: “In the typical case, we look to States to defend their prerogatives by adopting ‘the simple expedient of not yielding’ to federal blandishments when they do not want to embrace the federal policies as their own. The States are separate and independent sovereigns. Sometimes they have to act like it.”


The Shared Foundation of Liberals and Conservatives

Political discussion in the United States is often framed by party allegiance. When people are asked to explain the rationale behind their choice to identify with a specific party, however, they often cannot give an answer beyond listing particular positions that they support or oppose. While an understanding of specific policies is important, limiting debate […]

Alabama can do more for its military families

According to a recent survey, a majority of military family members do not feel that they belong in their local civilian communities. This means that less than half of military families that live in our neighborhoods, shop at our malls, and attend our places of worship feel at home with us. Why is this the […]

Taylor’s Top 4: Legislative Review for Week 8

Our prayers and heartfelt condolences go out to Representative Allen Treadaway and his family after the loss of his daughter Kelsey Treadaway earlier this week.  If you want to receive daily news hits from across the state and nation straight to your inbox each morning, click here to subscribe to API’s Daily Clips. 1. Changes to ethics […]

MORE ON Fiscal Policy

Tax Incentives: Not Always the Answer for Alabama’s Economic Struggles

Last month, the state rejoiced with news that Alabama would be the home of a new Toyota-Mazda plant. The plant is expected to bring over 4,000 jobs and billions of dollars in net revenue to the state. With the execution of this deal, known as Project New World, state and local governments will give the […]

API Joins 36 Conservative Groups and Activists: Congress Must Stop New Obamacare Taxes

Lawmakers must act to prevent Obamacare taxes from going into effect next year, 36 conservative groups and activists wrote in a letter addressed to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Absent Congressional action, the Obamacare health insurance tax and medical device tax will both go into effect in 2018. […]

MORE ON Good Governance

Increased Polarization in Politics: Bad for Alabama and the country

Our politics is increasingly polarized. Yelling matches on cable news are the norm, and those with opposite viewpoints are labeled as bigoted or anti-American. The division has gotten to the point that, according to the Pew Research Center, most Republicans and Democrats have few or no friends in the opposing party. The question, therefore, is […]

What do you want to hear from your candidates?

Most of the talk I’ve heard this legislative session has been preceded with “well, you know it’s an election year. . .” as if to indicate that we shouldn’t expect too much from our lawmakers in 2018. Rather, our expectations for our elected officials in 2018 should be just as high as usual, if not […]

It’s Time for New Year’s Resolutions

Ah, January, the make-or-break month for New Year’s resolutions. Don’t you think that our elected officials—members of the legislature, state school board, executive branch, and others—should adopt some resolutions? I’ve got a few ideas for them.       1. Commit to protecting taxpayers. Want to raise taxes? Meet them with an offset elsewhere. Want […]

MORE FROM Katherine Green Robertson

The Left’s Energy Policies Generate Energy Poverty

Though the word “poverty” typically provokes thoughts of individuals and families who lack the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter, there is another form of material poverty that isn’t as conspicuous, but is nearly as serious: energy poverty.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the country’s lowest-income households spend almost one-quarter of their […]

Redemption from Addiction

While scientific research may not definitively prove the causal connection between poverty and addiction (or vice versa), there is an undeniable correlation between the two. Addiction can lead to broken families, neglected children, crime, and incarceration—all of which can serve as chain links in the shackles of poverty. It can be assumed that Alabama’s disproportionately […]

If the People Only Knew

“The people want to vote!”—the most oft-repeated catchphrase of the lottery debate. Even politicians who declare themselves personally opposed to a state-run lottery try to justify their support of it because “the people want to vote.” But politicians know full well that they have not been honest with the people when it comes to a […]