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The New Devolution: Power To The States

By Charles Bierbauer/CNN

welfare recipient

WASHINGTON (Jan. 2) -- The 104th Congress started to fulfill its promise to reduce the size of federal government by shifting some responsibilities back to the states. It's called "devolution," a process Republicans in the new Congress have vowed to continue.

It began with welfare. As the federal government took off the leash, states took the federal money and took off on their own.

Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson says of the process, "We've asked for it and I think we're going to measure up to the task. And I think it's going to be not only exciting but I think very rewarding for those people on welfare as well as the taxpayers."

But it will be rewarding to those on welfare today only if they can make the grade on the job tomorrow.

Roy Romer

Gov. Roy Romer (D-Colo.) warns, "There are a lot of jobs out there, but if you're not literate, if you don't know how to be disciplined to hold down a job, that takes a lot of training."

But if they're trying, some folks who CNN talked to in Shepherdstown, W. Va., are rooting for them.

Gay Henderson, a Shepherdstown teacher, said, "If you give somebody an opportunity and they don't feel like their whole life is being directed by someone else, they'll usually exceed someone's expectations..."

And Shepherdstown residents like the idea of smaller government. Builder Mike Henderson said, "There's an arrogance about big government that no one can stomach."

Well, good. Because President Bill Clinton has declared big government over. And Republicans who still control Congress intend to make it smaller. State legislators have been warned what other changes lie ahead.

Tommy Thompson

Ron Haskins, chief of staff of the House Ways and Means Committee, gives an idea of what programs will come under future consideration. "Food stamps is around the corner, Medicaid is around maybe a couple more corners, certainly not this year, but eventually we should be able to push most social programs down to the state level and then the states and the counties and cities can work out better relationships," Haskins said.

Some mayors don't want programs "pushed down" to them. At a Dec. 11 mayors conference, Seattle Mayor Norm Rice said, "I believe that if you really want to see success, it needs to be bottom up."

Is there more to cut away from the federal government's role?

Shepherdstown's Anderson Clark, a consultant, thinks so. "Government is so heavy," he comments. "It just has so much, uhhh, lard created over the years."

On the governors' New Year scorecard:

  • More job training for those coming off welfare.
  • Medicaid reform to lower health care costs.
  • ISTEA, the surface transportation program, due for renewal.

On the subject of ISTEA, Gov. Romer says the billions of dollars from gas taxes should not be in federal hands. "The federal highway money is our money. They just bring it to Washington and give it back to us," Romer said.

Governors, emboldened by their gains, are wary that Washington might have second thoughts about what powers it gives up. Gov. Thompson said, "I'm somewhat concerned about the timidity of our congressional leadership of avoiding that subject completely since the election."

Gov. Romer predicts, "I think a lot of people are saying, 'Hey, let's catch up with this, let's grab our breath.' "

Take a deep breath. People who've gotten comfortable in Washington's safety net may find themselves looking more and more to their state capitol and City Hall.

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