Alabama’s shrinking sovereignty

Published 6:22 pm Wednesday, May 18, 2016

By Katherine Green Robertson
Robertson is vice president of the Alabama Policy Institute. 

On Friday, the omnipotent U.S. Department of Education threatened to pull federal funding from public school districts that refuse to fall in line over transgender bathrooms. Many school districts will submit, knowing that they cannot afford to jeopardize their federal cash flow. Setting aside for a moment the broader social debate over the directive, it remains a glaring illustration of just how far federalism has fallen from the days of the founders. While federal overreach has become commonplace, so has the voluntary surrender of the states’ constitutional authority over matters — something that is rarely acknowledged or discussed as states clamor for more and more federal dollars.

Alabama landed at number three this year in a report ranking the federal dependency of the states. Largely blamed on the state’s poverty rates, Alabama’s dependency on the federal government has reached dangerously high levels. According to the PEW Charitable Trusts, Alabama’s share of federal funds accounts for roughly 30 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, ten points higher than the national average.

Estimates derived from Alabama’s Executive Budget Document and the comptroller’s 2014 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report show that the state received $8.5 billion in federal dollars in 2014. Only 10 years prior, Alabama received $5.6 billion. That means that our state is 50 percent more dependent on the federal government than it was in 2004. These dollars are dedicated to an array of services, the largest of which are Medicaid, education and human services.

From No Child Left Behind to the Affordable Care Act, thousands of laws have been passed by Congress to lure states into ceding their authority in exchange for federal funding.

In addition to the concern that federal funds will deplete over time, Alabamians should be troubled by the fact that the state has given up meaningful control — typically, with little to no debate — over many of its own agencies and programs via the severe mandates and regulations that come with accepting federal dollars.

With Alabama’s own funding challenges to deal with, state agency heads and appropriators have little regard for the nation’s fiscal condition and often take a short-sighted approach to accepting federal dollars.

In Montgomery, the common refrain is that we ought to take as much “free” federal money as we can get, never mind the mandates that come with it. In the short term, this “free” money means free political points; in other words, politicians can reap the rewards of the spending without making tough budgetary decisions or facing any real opposition.