Blair Horner: Can The State And Cities Fill The Gaps Left By Washington?

Sep 24, 2018

The nation’s political leadership has chosen to ignore science, rip away health insurance, eviscerate environmental and public health protections, gut the most important consumer watchdog agency, and ram through judicial nominations based on raw political power instead of public accountability.

What can be done?

States cities and counties have jumped into the mix to do what they can to offset the most egregious of Washington’s actions.  Long considered the nation’s policy “laboratories,” local governments can offer new ideas to tackle pressing problems, while mitigating some of the most disastrous actions taken by the Trump Administration and its Congressional allies.

New York State can help by instituting its own “universal” health care policies, for example.  New York has its own health exchange and doesn’t have to heed the call of the President to strip away health insurance coverage for its residents.  In the same way, states can advance environmental policies that rely on science other than ideology and greed in setting climate control targets that respond to climate change instead of ignoring it.

Local governments can take significant actions too, since they operate close to the people and can develop policies that address real problems.  The City of New York, for example, has one of the nation’s more effective campaign finance laws – a model that creates a campaign financing paradigm based on cultivating a large number of small donors; instead of the federal and state systems which encourage reliance on a small number of very wealthy donors.

New York City – the nation’s largest city – has embarked on an overhaul of its Charter; the blueprint for how its government operates.  The Mayor and the City Council are engaged in a wide-ranging public conversation on how the Charter can address the needs of its people.  So far, there will be measures on this November’s ballot to further strengthen the City’s voluntary system of public financing of elections that will make candidates even less reliant on big donors.

The City Council has begun hearings to receive public input on how the Charter may be restructured to respond to environmental and public health threats, ensure that civil liberties are protected, people are educated, expand affordable housing, reform its criminal justice system, modernize its mass transit system, and ensure that access to health care is provided to those who need it, with a focus on achieving those ends without breaking the bank.

New York City’s approach is a far cry from the national government’s dismissive approach to science, its focus on rewarding its allies even at the expense of good governance, its apparent pandering to a hostile foreign power, and its debasing of civil discourse.

Here in New York, the rhetoric of reforms usually falls far short of the reality.  The City’s open approach stands in stark contrast to the secret, often cynical, deal-making in Albany.

Of course, actions by local governments are no substitute for actions by the federal government.  One does not have to look too far into the nation’s past to see the argument of “local control” being used as a powerful tool to discriminate against American citizens.  Moreover, actions by local governments are often used to justify national inaction.

Further, federal policies do matter, whether state and local leaders like it or not.  For example, the recent Congressional tax agreement imposes a limit on state and local tax deductions, making it more economically and politically costly for state and local governments to raise revenue.  Tariffs are threatening companies and jobs across all kinds of communities, but the Trump administration proposes to protect farmers with billions of dollars in subsidies provided by urban and suburban taxpayers.  Actions by government outside the Washington Beltway alone can’t overcome national policies.  Elections do matter.

As the nation deals with the fallout from the Trump Administration, states and localities must act.  New York City’s enlightened approach stands in stark contrast to simple, anti-Trump rhetoric.  While local governments alone can’t save us, they can be the foundation on which to restore democracy while enhancing services.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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