Movement Advocating State's Rights Must be Approached with Caution, Wisdom and a Good Memory

05/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Whenever I hear a pundit or politician West spouting about the need to transfer power from the federal government to the states, I think back to my college days at the University of Montana.

The campus is bordered on its northwest by the Clark Fork River which, in the days of my youth, was an open sewer. Under the auspices of the city and state through which it flowed, the river was abused and ignored until it actually became a menace. A caring, but exasperated, public finally petitioned the federal government to clean the waterway -- much as the citizens of Ohio were to do when the Cuyahoga River actually caught on fire!

Today the Clark Fork, the Cuyahoga, and many hundreds of other American rivers run clear because after 200 years of mistaken trust in our localities and states to assure clean, safe water, the citizens finally demanded that their federal government aggressively assert itself as an environmental partner with our states and cities. The wonderful results of the federal response are everywhere.

The truth is, the West needs a strong federal government, perhaps more than any other region in the country. Oh, I know, that sounds almost un-American in a country which, at least for now, harbors a popular fetish to harangue anything federal. The current anti-federal mongering, particularly by the Far Right, is not only wrong-headed, it is dangerous. And it threatens to upset the balance -- what Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor refers to as "the elegant balance" -- between our state and federal governments.

That balance was purposefully hardwired into the United States Constitution by America's founders, who brilliantly recognized that the sharing of authority between state and federal governments would allow each to make its separate contribution to the building and sustaining of the country and its citizens. It is called Federalism and it works.

Consider just one element -- costs. For those of us living in the lightly populated West, the cost of essential public services are critical. The equitable absorption of cost through the federal treasury has saved many western states' bacon. Can 900,000 Montanans pay the cost of the many hundreds of miles of interstate highways and bridges which cross and link our state? Will the 500,000 in the citizens of Wyoming be financially responsible for the Pell Grants and federally guaranteed student loans that assist their 20,000 college-bound students?

If left to operate alone, our state governments, particularly here in the West, would be in the deepest of trouble. And, frankly, the duplication, confusion, disarray, regulations and -- yes -- fraud, waste, and abuse in state governments, taken collectively, makes the workings of Washington, D.C., look almost efficient by comparison. Those who doubt that should ask the nation's long distance, truckers or railroaders. They, and many other interstate businesses, will tell you that state, and often local, governments are their biggest regulatory nightmare.

State governments in the West cannot satisfy the basic safety, health care, transportation or even education requirements of their own people. Failing that, they can hardly find the vitality to be the vaunted "laboratories of change" we have heard so much about.

We also hear a lot about "devolution" -- the effort to further empower state governments with authority mostly now reserved for the federal government. The idea has some basis and reason for support. But as we move toward devolution, let's be clearheaded about the intent of our founders as well as the inherent weakness of states acting alone.

States and state's rightists have too often ignored the civil rights of their own citizens and, even more so, the rights of their citizens to live in relatively clean and safe environments.

Our founders somehow knew that our rights as individuals are best assured by not being beholden to only one government. Thus they built in the checks and balances inherent in the partnership of federal and state government. No people anywhere have benefited more from that federalism than have we westerners. As we consider this new movement toward more jurisdiction and authority to the states, we should do so with caution, wisdom and a good memory.