Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Identifying proper roles of various government levels

Gov. Gary Herbert is now chairman of the National Governors Association and has chosen federalism — restoring a proper balance in the federal-state relationship — as his key focus. His initiative comes at a time of when major questions are being raised regarding the proper roles of the different levels of government.

Can Gov. Herbert make meaningful progress with his federalism initiative?

Pignanelli: "I do believe states' rights was a sound doctrine that got hijacked by some unsavory customers for a while — like 150 years or so.” — John Shelton Reed

My parents recently celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary. (A modern-day miracle considering the Italian-Irish ethnic mix, compounded by family stubbornness and the daily drama.) I learned from them that in a successful relationship, there is friction and constant give-and-take by either party for an adjustment of responsibilities based upon circumstances. Our republic is in the 226th year of the marriage between the federal government and the states, and is enduring continual tug-of-war in response to changing dynamics.

Early in my life, the federals did all the cool things: forcing desegregation in schools, protecting civil rights, mandating clean air and water, etc. But Washington, D.C., has lost the sheen for numerous incompetencies: weak responses to crisis, bloated and wasteful bureaucracies, bizarre and burdensome regulations. Most federal employees are hard workers, but the massive leviathan prevents realization of important objectives.

Therefore, Gov. Herbert can succeed if his important endeavor is framed correctly. Americans do not understand "states' rights." Yet they enthusiastically support the form of governance that best defends their families, liberties and livelihood. Sometimes that is the feds, but in most cases it's the states. Local governments are responsive, innovative, consumer friendly and efficient. Thus, marketing competency and not ideology, is the best strategy for Herbert.

Webb: Addressing federalism is an ambitious undertaking and a worthy pursuit. In his one year as NGA chairman, Herbert won’t have time to make great progress sorting out the tangle of federal/state programs, funding and responsibility. But focusing attention will be helpful, and Herbert’s plan to highlight state-level innovation and best practices will demonstrate that states can better perform many of the things the federal government is struggling to do.

Reversing many decades of centralization at the federal level will be a long and difficult process. In fact, even today the trend is toward more consolidation and power at the federal level, not less.

Sen. Mike Lee wants to dramatically reduce the federal role in transportation funding and shift most funding and responsibility to the states. Does his plan make sense?

Pignanelli: Sen. Lee does not shy away from a battle, which his "Transportation Empowerment" legislation will deliver. All the interests vested in the federal fund regime (i.e. construction, engineering, etc.) are building a defense against this proposal — which implies some reform is needed. Policy gurus do have legitimate concerns whether the states will adequately replace the lost federal revenues. A lively debate is expected.

Webb: Lee’s big idea makes sense philosophically, although the federal government has a legitimate and important role in interstate transportation. Nationwide connectivity via highway, rail and air is crucial to every state economy, and especially Utah’s, as the crossroads of the West.

The devil is always in the details, and the problem with Lee’s legislation is the logistics, funding reductions and difficult transition. My experience with the Salt Lake Chamber’s Transportation Coalition indicates that even in conservative states like Utah, transportation agencies and business leaders concerned about transportation infrastructure don’t support Lee’s plan as currently written, and they don’t expect it to gain traction.

Lee apparently wants to do states a favor and help balance the federal budget, but he did not engage in meaningful discussions with state transportation leaders to discuss how devolution could occur in a rational, practical, common-sense way that doesn’t upend state budgets and disrupt planned projects and financing structures.

In the meantime, by vocally opposing short-term efforts to protect transportation funding, Lee loses credibility with the state and local transportation agencies he purports to help.

Lee has a lot of nuts-and-bolts work to do with the local folks if he wants his devolution idea to take off.

Efforts continue in Western states to take over federal land, even as Barack Obama's administration considers designating a huge new national monument. Are efforts to take title to federal land a futile exercise?

Pignanelli: For decades, Western officials have shouted demands at the Feds — and were always ignored. But recent actions by the Utah Legislature are the right approach. Republican and Democratic legislative leaders agreed to hire a legal/public affairs team (my firm is a participant) to determine viability of any legal strategy to increase state control of public lands.

Webb: More than 60 percent of Utah is owned by the federal government, compared with less than 2 percent in many states. That’s a real economic disadvantage for Utah and the other public land states. Certainly, national parks, conservation areas, military reservations and wilderness areas ought to be retained in federal ownership. That’s a lot of land. But substantial acreage could be better managed by the state.

For now, Rep. Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative is the best vehicle to balance conservation, energy, recreation and other land management disputes. It deserves support. Another big federal monument designation would be disastrous.