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The Planet

Why "States' Rights" is Wrong for America

State of the States

The Planet, March 1997, Volume 4, number 2


  • The View From Arizona
  • The View from Georgia

The View From Arizona

Polluting interest groups heavily funded and influenced the last Congress, but found their anti-environmental agenda unpopular with voters. Now, a subtler approach is on deck. "Devolution" -- a key concept in the Contract With America -- is the buzzword for granting states the authority to enforce federal laws. When it comes to the environment, it doesn't work.

While industries may find it hard to convince voters that lower health and safety standards are good for them, they find a ready ear with local politicians. They say, "Keep decisionmaking at the local level," or, "Why have the federal government interfering in our business?" or, "We know what works here."

What they really mean is it's easier to confuse and deceive local residents about the toxic standards they are exposed to when there are no baseline national standards to go by. But a set of lungs in Alabama is just as susceptible to airborne toxins as one in Alaska. Meanwhile, many of these same polluting industries receive government subsidies and exemptions from labor, public right-to-know and other regulatory programs. The result is that American taxpayers are funding bureaucracies that are supposed to represent their interests but are currently being coerced into glitzy-sounding "partnerships" meant to lower environmental and public health standards. Club members and activists -- indeed, all Americans -- should be aware of these efforts to allow the undermining of environmental health and safety standards in the name of efficiency and local control. We do not intend to let the residents of our states remain ignorant of this destructive, irresponsible trend.

-- Raena Honan
Arizona Chapter Legislative Director

The View from Georgia

Forty years ago in the South, "states' rights" were code words for massive resistance to federal civil-rights and voting-rights laws, and to school desegregation. "States' rights" was Alabama Gov. George Wallace's motto as he railed against Washington and perfected the politics of rage and hatred that is so prevalent today. Now there are new code words such as "devolution" and "performance partnership." Under these relatively benign-sounding doctrines, the great majority of U.S. environmental laws have been delegated to state environmental agencies for implementation. Yet federal environmental law constitutes minimum protection; states are able to pass stronger laws if they deem it necessary. By the same reasoning, local communities should retain the power to provide even more protection for their citizens. But this important principle is under attack as state legislatures pass "no more stringent than federal standards" legislation. The hypocritical rhetoric of local control versus the least restrictive standards set by the federal government clearly exposes the agenda of polluting industries at the state and local levels.

Unfortunately, state agencies have often lacked the political will to enforce delegated environmental laws during the past two years. The problem of lax enforcement has reached crisis proportions as state after state has slashed environmental spending and passed takings and audit privilege bills.

Americans' environmental rights, such as clean air and water, should not depend upon which state they happen to live in. Should the states be trusted to take over greater responsibility for environmental protection? The record says absolutely not. States' rights is a loser, just as it was at Gettysburg in 1863.

- Mark Woodall
Georgia Chapter Legislative Chair

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