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WILL SPECIAL INTERESTS DEBASE LEAVITT’S STATES’ RIGHTS DEBATE?

SHARE WILL SPECIAL INTERESTS DEBASE LEAVITT’S STATES’ RIGHTS DEBATE?

This past Thanksgiving, when most people were sitting down to turkey dinners and football games, Gov. Mike Leavitt was feasting on the constitutional philosophies of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson - certainly not typical holiday fare.

The featured course, in this case, was the issue of balance of power between states and the federal government - as guaranteed in the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - and how the federal government has, over the past several decades, assumed more and more authority over policies and issues traditionally reserved for the states.In 1927, the federal government accounted for 31 percent of all government spending (federal, state and local). Today, it is responsible for 62 percent.

"Is that a positive thing?" Leavitt asks. "No." But neither would it have been positive if the balance had shifted in the other direction at the expense of a strong national government.

A striking imbalance has evolved. And with greater and greater centralization of the federal government comes an increased feeling of disenfranchisement. "Much of the frustration people feel about government . . . is that they don't feel empowered to change it," Leavitt says.

So on Thanksgiving, Leavitt began writing things down "to consolidate my thoughts," he says. What came of that weekend was a position paper on states' rights and a proposed blueprint for restoring the balance of power. The purpose: to optimize the effectiveness of government and the protection of its citizens.

The plan called for three strategies:

- A legal approach whereby states could jointly focus on the five or six legal principles that could be pursued in the courts.

- A legislative strategy that supports eliminating unfunded federal mandates on states.

- A constitutional approach, which calls for a constitutional amendment to restore the balance of power.

This process would be steered by a Conference of States that would debate the merits of legal, legislative and constitutional arguments, and, if need be, begin the process of forcing Congress to consider a constitutional amendment.

Originally, Leavitt had called for a meeting of the Conference of States by October 1995 and a constitutional amendment by 1996. Now, Leavitt has dropped all references to when the process will begin or end, referring elusively to it as a long-term effort.

"For the long term, I personally believe an amendment goes a long ways (toward solving the problem). But I am not proposing a specific amendment."

Besides, several proposed constitutional amendments are already floating about. In 1989, the Council of State Governments proposed a constitutional amendment to restore the balance of power. A federal judge in Washington, D.C., also wrote a tough analysis on the subject.

In fact, the more Leavitt dug into it, the more he discovered there had been many others who had traveled the same road. Former Gov. Scott Matheson addressed the topic at length in his memoirs "Out of Balance."

And one of the most stirring calls for action came more than a decade ago from then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, who predicted that states are at a crossroads where "we can look forward to abolishing the states, turning governors into administrative agents of the federal government, designating the state capitols as regional service offices . . ."

Babbitt's solution to turn the tide? Two far-reaching constitutional amendments and a "national convocation" to study the federal system.

Ironically, Babbitt now heads the U.S. Department of Interior - a federal agency often criticized for usurping state and local authority. During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., Leavitt asked Babbitt if his perspective had changed. "Not a bit," Babbitt assured him.

Leavitt's plan might have been destined for a forgotten file cabinet somewhere had he not floated a draft of the paper by a few legislators, who in turned faxed copies of it to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

NCSL called up saying that states' rights was the organization's "highest priority." The organization is now studying the Leavitt blueprint - which is more philosophical than it is nuts and bolts - and will make a formal recommendation during its national conference in July.

In the meantime, Leavitt continues to pitch the idea to fellow governors (18 at last count) and state legislators across the nation. The response? "Everything from soup to nuts," he says.

In his heart of hearts, Leavitt had hoped to keep the debate on a philosophical level and avoid partisan bickering and single-issue distractions. But reality has proved somewhat more rocky.

The issue of balance of power and states' rights is so complex and encompasses virtually every aspect of government and its relationship to those governed that few people really understand what it all means.

And many of those who do are tempted to divert the philosophical discussion to specific causes. Leavitt is convinced the idea will die if the debate is "used as a means to solve individual issues about abortion or gun control or sexual preference or public lands or health care or welfare."

The miracle of 1787, Leavitt says, is that the framers of the U.S. Constitution were able to deal with matters of principle and "work through the quagmire of political issues," the thorniest of which was slavery.

Leavitt had hoped that kind of lofty discussion would ensue in the wake of unveiling the blueprint during a speech in Phoenix - the first time the media had analyzed the proposal in detail. He had been invited to speak by two state legislatures and the governor of Arizona, and he was told the audience would consist of lawmakers from 17 Western states - a seemingly perfect forum for a philosophical discussion on balance of powers.

What Leavitt found when he got there was a large crowd of single-issue proponents, a good share of them political extremists who had been whipped into an anti-federal government frenzy. Only 24 of those in attendance were actually lawmakers, about seven of them from Utah.

The speech took 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of questions in which Leavitt found himself on the defensive. How did his proposal fit into the debate on Western public lands? To some, Leavitt's rhetoric was too radical, to others it was not radical enough.

"Groups from both extremes will form extreme opinions on this," he said, insisting that the majority of rank-and-file voters are overwhelmingly supportive.

As much as he had hoped to keep the debate separate from partisan politics large-scale unveiling of the concept was quickly sidetracked by those very topics. "If I had to do it again, I would still speak. . .(but) I would speak on another subject."

If he learned one lesson in Phoenix it is that the concept is fraught with political quicksand that could slow, if not swallow, the entire process. Some powerful allies and organizations have nonetheless embraced the proposal nationally, and Leavitt says he is determined to press on.

"I see this (bringing government back into balance) as a 20-year process, maybe longer. It took 50 to 60 years to create the imbalance, and it will take a long time to remedy it."