Skip to main content

Can state leaders do a good job?

By Sherrilyn A. Ifill, Special to CNN
July 16, 2012 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
Gov. Rick Perry said Texas will not participate in health insurance exchanges or Medicaid expansion provisions.
Gov. Rick Perry said Texas will not participate in health insurance exchanges or Medicaid expansion provisions.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some Southern governors said they will not participate in the health care law
  • Sherrilyn Ifill: Lack of leadership has too often been the hallmark of state governments
  • She says Southern leaders in particular have been resistant to the federal government
  • Ifill: What is desperately needed in state government is principled leadership

Editor's note: Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and the chairwoman of the U.S. Programs Board of the Open Society Foundations. She is the author of "On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century."

(CNN) -- "I just get sick and tired, quite frankly, of all this talk. Everything that has to do with the federal branch of government ... is bad, and states are good. I remind you that ... the reason the federal government got into 90% of the business it got into is that the state[s] ... did not do the job."

When Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware made this statement as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1981 at the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Sandra Day O'Connor, he was referring to statements by his colleagues suggesting that the judgment of state courts was entitled to greater legitimacy than those of federal courts.

But Biden could well have delivered similar remarks at last week's NAACP Convention, where he spoke days after several Southern governors, led by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, announced that they will not participate in the health insurance exchanges or Medicaid expansion provisions of the health care law. No matter that 25% of Texans are uninsured, reportedly the highest rate among all states. Perry and the other governors want to burnish their anti-Barack Obama bona fides to an ever-hungry tea party base.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill
Sherrilyn A. Ifill

These elected leaders are following a longstanding tradition in American politics of Southern states acting against the best interest of their residents.

As Biden's 1981 remarks suggest, a good reason the federal government has expanded and occupied areas that might be best served by state government is precisely because of the lack of leadership that has too often been the hallmark of state governments.

This has been particularly true in the South, where the idea of state sovereignty and racial injustice often went hand in hand.

From the Civil War to the civil rights movement 100 years later, the call for "states' rights" long stood for the desire of Southern states to mistreat their black residents. That's why the invocation of this term -- as it was by Ronald Reagan, when he launched his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi -- has become a kind of code that carries offensive racial implications.

Resistance to the federal government -- in particular, the liberal decisions of Earl Warren's Supreme Court, President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and Congress' enactment of a series of civil rights laws targeted at discriminatory state conduct -- served as a rallying point for disaffected white Southerners.

What is most distressing about the elaborate displays of failed leadership by Southern governors who rail against the reach of the federal government is their willingness to sacrifice the needs of their most vulnerable.

The starkest historical example is the 1959 decision of Prince Edward County, a Virginia school district, to close schools for five years rather than comply with desegregation orders after Brown v. Board of Education, crippling the local education system and ensuring that a generation of black students would be unable to complete their K-12 education.

The county's decision followed the lead of Virginia's powerful senator, Harry F. Byrd Sr., who authored the Southern Manifesto, which called for state-based "massive resistance" to school integration.

To be fair, the phenomenon of bellicose or ineffective state leadership is not limited to the South or to Republicans.

Only six states initially chose to opt in when Medicaid was first launched back in the 1960s. Those who chose to ignore Medicaid were merely delaying the inevitable. While governors postured, poor women and children fell through the cracks in the health care system. Ultimately, all states would join Medicaid.

In 2009, while the country was coping with the effects of the Great Recession and unemployment was high, Republican governors from the South led the call to reject stimulus money for the extension of unemployment benefits. But a year later, it was two states in the Midwest -- Ohio and Wisconsin -- that decided to turn down hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money for rail projects.

Likewise, legislators in New Hampshire have forfeited millions of federal transportation dollars, not to mention tens of millions in saved medical costs, because they do not want to enact a primary mandatory seat belt law, making the state the only one in the country without such a requirement.

Responsibility for failed policies on the state level, however, does not fall solely on the shoulders of elected state leaders. Voters must also act wisely to adopt the best policies, practices and laws for the common good.

California was admonished by the U.S. Supreme Court last year and ordered to reduce the severe overcrowding in its prisons. But it was the decision of Californian voters to adopt ever more irrational and punitive criminal sentencing laws -- such as "three strikes you're out" -- that ballooned the state's prison population and resulted in the Supreme Court's intervention. This November, California voters have an opportunity to revise some of the ill-advised "three strikes" sentences. The ball is in their court.

What is desperately needed now in state government is the principled leadership of elected leaders.

The economy has brought about the most challenging state fiscal crisis in several generations.

To provide for the needs of its residents -- whether it's in education, jobs, housing, public safety or health care -- states will have to cooperate with the business and the nonprofit community, but more importantly, with the federal government. Partisan posturing will benefit only candidates but hurt the common people.

State government can be the most appropriate locus of government power in many important areas. Those who argue against the size and reach of the federal government should first demand that state leaders act responsibly and in the best interests of all their residents. Otherwise, it is the duty of the voters to speak up at the polls.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sherrilyn A. Ifill.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT