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The explosion of state and local government

By Doug Patton
web posted August 27, 2001

Cuomo's loss: A sweet victory
Cuomo's loss: A sweet victory

I was a part of the 1994 "revolution" that ushered in Republican control of Congress. I was working for a young, conservative, idealistic Republican candidate for Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. We were given no chance to win, but we did. The timing and the message were perfect. It was an intoxicatingly magic year that saw Democrat giants like New York Governor Mario Cuomo and House Speaker Tom Foley toppled from their seemingly impenetrable ivory towers. Tax-and-spend liberalism, it seemed at the time, had been brought low.

That unknown congressional candidate went on to become a pretty good congressman. He amassed a very conservative voting record for two terms, and he took every opportunity to be involved in sending control from Washington back to state and local governments, because that's where he believed that it belonged. Then he decided to forego a sure third term for a Quixotic campaign for governor. He and many of his congressional colleagues had gone to Washington with the same goal in mind: wrestle some of that federal power away and return it to the states.

But a funny thing happened on the way to local control. Even before conservatives in the congress managed to rip a little control from federal tentacles, a time bomb of state and local spending had begun to tick.

A perfect example is the growth of government right here in my home state of Nebraska. Despite the best efforts of the current Republican governor to hold the line on any new taxes, the confiscatory tax burden is beginning to drive life-long Nebraskans from the state.

Out of control state spending here began in earnest in the late 1980s, and exploded in the 1990s. Nebraska, once called "the white spot of the nation" because it had no sales tax or state income tax, now ranks as one of the most heavily taxed states in the country. Add local public school spending that has driven property taxes through the roof and you have the recipe for an exodus from an otherwise very livable state.

Recently, the Omaha World-Herald reported on the problem in an article entitled "Nebraskans, Iowans Pack Public Payroll." It seems that in a state with only 1.6 million people, our state government sees fit to employ more than 100,000 of us. That is 628.9 state employees per 10,000 Nebraskans, making us number six in the nation and giving us the dubious distinction of leading the state of New York in per capita public employment.

The article went on to list the reasons for this massive buildup of public employment: public utilities, public hospitals, and, predictably, public schools.

Theoretically, government closest to the people should be the most responsive to the people's concerns. However, in order to preserve the people's liberty and resources, it must also be the government that governs least, and no such government exists at any level in America as we enter the 21st Century.

Given the nature of our system, the voters must care, and caring, they must act on their frustration when government overspends and overreaches. Unfortunately, most people can't tell you the name of their state senator, so this part of the equation breaks down rapidly. Many state and local officials are elected to office by voters who don't know a thing about them or their views.

It is not axiomatic that government must grow, but it will continue to do so - at all levels - unless and until the electorate awakens to the reality that every new program costs us money, and every new law deprives us of a little more freedom. ESR

Doug Patton is a freelance columnist who has served as a speechwriter and policy advisor for federal, state and local candidates and elected officials. His work can be read weekly on various web sites, including © 2001 by Doug Patton

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