”Example isn’t the main thing in influencing others — it is the only thing.”
— Albert Schweitzer
Increasingly alarmed by the nation’s deteriorating fiscal outlook and the inability of our federal political system to produce timely, common-sense solutions, some state government officials have begun to show leadership. Some in Wyoming are leading the way.
They can do much more.
This year, the two leading associations representing state legislators and the United States Conference of Mayors have issued compelling resolutions urging action by their federal counterparts.
The Mayors conference called for: “A bipartisan and balanced approach to deficit reduction by incorporating spending cuts with additional revenue from sources such as tax code reform and closing unfair corporate tax loopholes.”
In July, the bipartisan Council of State Governments-West led by Wyoming State Rep. Rosie Berger, R-Sheridan, unanimously passed a resolution at its annual meeting urging Congress “to pass a comprehensive and aggressive budget resolution to address our nation’s deficit spending and national debt.”
CSG-West clearly identified the need to “tolerate provisions we oppose in order to reach principled compromise” and “put national interest above special interests in order to make meaningful progress.”
Earlier in the year, the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislators sent a letter to Congress and the president to ask for passage of a comprehensive plan modeled after the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform’s Moment of Truth report and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Restoring America’s Future. NCSL specifically identified the “need to examine all possible avenues for deficit reduction, including discretionary spending, entitlement reform and revenue-related options.”
During its 2012 session, Wyoming’s Legislature overwhelmingly passed a resolution “requesting Congress to pass a comprehensive deficit and debt reduction plan and urging support from the president.” The primary goal of the sponsor, State Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff, R-Jackson, was “to give our members of Congress permission to compromise.”
Fortunately, it worked. Wyoming Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis was one of only 38 U.S. representatives, and one of only 16 Republicans, to vote in favor of a comprehensive and bipartisan House budget resolution.
Unfortunately, leadership by example has been lacking in most states. Federal politicians are eager to label spending in other states as wasteful, and just as eager to defend wasteful federal funding to their states or districts. By choosing to ignore or defend lower priority projects, they make budget stabilization practically impossible. For too long, a measure of success for members of Congress has been how much federal money they could siphon off to their home district. They now must rise above parochial interests to vote for the good of the nation.
For example, here in Wyoming, our federal legislators continue to fight for $300,000 to $500,000 per year in spending to keep the east gate to Yellowstone National Park open to snowmobiles through 20 avalanche paths that regularly block the road and present a safety hazard. In recent years, only about 90 machines went through the area each winter. This amounts to a subsidy of about $3,600 per snow machine.
These same legislators have been silent on a 90 percent federally funded $70 million Wyoming state highway project in Teton County that is unanimously opposed by the county commission, Republicans and Democrats, who favor a less costly alternative.
In a rare display of real leadership, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., put together an Oklahoma Waste Report that identified 35 wasteful federal spending programs his state could live without. The programs totaled $173 million, about 8 percent of annual federal spending in Oklahoma. Sen. Coburn said: “If we have the courage to identify and eliminate unnecessary programs in our communities, we will be taking a bold step toward securing the future for the next generation of Americans.”
Our nation is on an unsustainable fiscal path. Leadership by state and local leaders is needed by their example refusing wasteful federal projects, and by urging action from recalcitrant or timid federal leaders. This is not a matter of ideology. It is simple arithmetic. More state-level efforts of leadership by their example could make a huge difference in the fight to save the nation from an economic collapse and the widespread suffering that would ensue.