Should federal government foot the bill when states neglect responsibility?

Stoneage Ramblings

By John R. Stone

A recent op-ed piece in the StarTribune by former gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner asks the question, “Should states be required to meet a minimum level of local tax effort before they come to Washington for emergency aid?”

The question was directed to the issue of Texas and its electric grid issues. It is assumed that Congress will be asked to foot some of the bill for damages. FEMA is already there with aid for people.

The issue is that previous situations have arisen where the grid was at risk, warnings of potential failure were made, and not enough was done. Now, maybe the disaster was beyond the realm of what was reasonable to prepare for or not. That will be probably be decided later after sure-to-come investigations are concluded.

I have previously thought something similar when it comes to states with large river or ocean-frontage as it pertains to hurricanes and floods. Like snow and cold, hurricanes come just about every year and often many times a year, yet when the disasters strike and houses and infrastructure have been destroyed we rush in with the Washington check book.

So what is it reasonable to expect states to do to prevent these events from becoming such disasters?

A question I have raised before is why should the nation be socked for billions of dollars because some millionaires want to live on barrier islands along our coasts? It isn’t a matter of if these properties will be damaged by some event associated with the ocean, it is a matter of when.

Tougher rules about some of these kinds of situations have been put into effect. But even if the homeowner suffers the entire loss there is still the cost of infrastructure, bridges, causeways, electrical service, water and sewer lines that are public expenses.

I wonder if this isn’t a very similar argument that Republicans and a handful of Democrats are pushing regarding the request for a $35 million state public safety fund to pay law enforcement for the extra expenses for things like the Derek Chauvin trial coming up in March.

Minneapolis had been warned many times about its police department’s issues with Blacks and the George Floyd death happened anyway. Of course the fact that a majority of Minneapolis City Council members publicly called for defunding the police also raises legitimate questions. Why should the rest of the state pay when Minneapolis itself doesn’t want to solve a known problem only it had the power to correct?

Fifty years ago the Minnesota Legislature passed the “Minnesota Miracle” a funding mechanism to try to make more equal the resources available to local school districts. The idea was that every district had to raise a certain amount of money as a percentage of its property tax base dedicated to fund its schools. The state would pick up most of the rest. Every district could raise more, but a minimum needed to be raised.

Wouldn’t that be a good model to be used for structuring a required minimum effort to qualify for Federal aid when a disaster strikes?  We would be saying, yes, you made a reasonable effort to avoid this problem, we will help. Or we would be saying you knew this was a problem, you chose not to address it, why should we?

The Federal government can’t solve everybody’s problems nor should it be expected to. That’s why we have states and state governments; they are closer to the problems and know what is best for their areas. It is their responsibility to be prepared for most eventualities.

Things will occur for which no state can be adequately prepared, such as 9/11. And then there can be a super hurricane or the derecho that hit Iowa or some super tornadoes. There states should get help.

But there a lot of other instances where states just didn’t fix stuff and should have. We shouldn’t be footing the bill for that.