Republicans: Look to States for Policy Innovation

Republicans: Look to States for Policy Innovation
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, combined with the Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress, has opened the door to enacting bold limited government and pro-growth policies at the federal level, including the repeal of Obamacare, tax reform, and reducing regulation. Yet, too often, liberty-minded proponents of limited government focus on Washington at the expense of what can be accomplished in the states. 

With more than 151 million people living in the 25 states with Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures, the principles of federalism laid out by the Constitution provide the freedom movement with an opportunity. While capitalizing on Trump’s unexpected victory over Clinton, we should do more to mobilize support for good policy at the state level.  

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once famously wrote in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” While the concept of federalism articulated by the Tenth Amendment has been eroded by Democratic and Republican administrations and Congresses alike, there’s still a role for states as laboratories. They can enact infectious new policy ideas that, if successful, can catch the attention of Congress, spurring conservative reform at the federal level. 

For example, one of the biggest challenges currently facing states is unfunded public-pension programs. A recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that state-run pension programs, which offer benefits to state-government employees, faced more than $933 billion in unfunded liabilities in 2014. The total figure rises above $1.5 trillion when you include local pension programs. Conservatives rightly hope for entitlement reform at the federal level, the unfunded liabilities of which range from $55 trillion to $222 trillion, depending on the estimate. Addressing the ticking time bomb that unfunded state pensions represent will help us rise to meet the challenge posed by federal entitlements.

Another example is criminal-justice reform. Although it’s not generally thought of as a conservative issue, traditionally Republican states such as Texas and Georgia have laid important groundwork here. With prison populations and resulting costs on the rise, these states got smart on crime. By focusing on drug-treatment and diversion programs as alternatives to incarceration and substantive in-prison rehabilitation programs, they were able to lower recidivism, save taxpayers money, and enhance public safety. 

Over the past 10 years, more than 30 states have enacted criminal-justice reforms. Some have gone further than others, with sentencing reforms that crack down on violent and repeat offenders while allowing for judicial discretion for low-level, nonviolent crimes, and re-entry policies that aim to improve the transition back into society. While there is still a lot of work to do in many states to reduce recidivism, save taxpayers money, and promote public safety, the federal government would do well to keep an eye on these state-level reforms.  

Another crucial component of state-level reform is health care. With Republicans looking to undo Obamacare, states should focus on resisting calls for Medicaid expansion. Under current law, states are required to pick up at least 10 percent of their Medicaid costs by 2020 — something that could be changed by the new Congress. 

The cost of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion is already nearly 50 percent higher than originally projected. Another problem with the Medicaid expansion is that the program already faces a doctor shortage due to the bureaucracy and poor reimbursement rates associated with it. What’s more, some studies suggest that Medicaid often leads to poor health outcomes. According to Scott Gottlieb of the American Enterprise Institute, for example, “in some cases,” patients would “do just as well without health insurance.” 

One health-care reform states could embrace is “right-to-try” legislation. This policy, which has been adopted by more than 30 states, allows terminally ill patients to try potentially life-saving medications and treatments that have gone through only the initial part FDA approval process. This gives some measure of hope to patients who don’t have time to wait for the FDA’s notoriously slow approval process.

Finally, grassroots conservatives across the country should continue to call for term limits for state lawmakers. Term limits create a legislative system that emphasizes citizen lawmakers and encourages new voices with fresh perspectives. 

Fifteen states — including Colorado, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Dakota — have already approved term limits. Several other states, such as Georgia and Florida, have passed resolutions calling for an Article V convention of the states to impose term limits on members of Congress. (Thirty-four states must pass resolutions for the convention to be held.) 

These are just a few examples of how the freedom movement can pursue a reform agenda at the state level in 2017 and beyond. Showing that freedom can be preserved in the states is the only way to build momentum for real policy change in Washington. 

Adam Brandon is the president and CEO of FreedomWorks. 

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