Western Governors to Congress: More Power Please

In this May 15, 2014, file photo, Otero cattle rancher association president Gary Stone inspects a newly posted warning sign in Weed, New Mexico. The forest service had closed off areas to prevent damage to New Mexico meadow jumping mouse's habit.

In this May 15, 2014, file photo, Otero cattle rancher association president Gary Stone inspects a newly posted warning sign in Weed, New Mexico. The forest service had closed off areas to prevent damage to New Mexico meadow jumping mouse's habit. AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

"We find ourselves continually having to ask the federal government: ‘Mother may I?’” Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter said.

WASHINGTON — The Republican governors of Idaho, New Mexico and Utah told U.S. House lawmakers on Tuesday that they’d like to see federal control over regulatory and decision-making processes recalibrated to give states more flexibility and power.

The governors at times zeroed in on programs that have to do with public lands management and environmental permitting, two topics that have garnered attention since President Trump took office. Tuesday’s hearing in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee took place as a special House task force on intergovernmental affairs continues its work.

“When our political culture mistakenly presumes that the greatest expertise resides in federal agencies, Americans miss out on the lessons already learned by the states,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said. “What we really need is a cultural change within the federal government. Congress and federal agencies must stop viewing state input as merely a box-checking exercise.”

Herbert said states should have greater sway over certain parts of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, process. NEPA is a bedrock environmental law that provides a framework for approving infrastructure and other projects. The governor also suggested states should have a more substantial role carrying out species recovery efforts under the Endangered Species Act.

Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter charged that “the limited and narrow powers granted to the federal government by our Constitution have been expanded exponentially.” He said this “mission creep” is most apparent in places where the federal government controls large tracts of public land, which is the situation in many western states.

“We find ourselves continually having to ask the federal government: ‘Mother may I?’” Otter added.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez described “regulations and edicts from Washington” that have thrust “rigid and formulaic” programs on her state.

Only the three GOP governors from western states offered in-person testimony at the hearing, which was billed as a look at “federalism implications of treating states as stakeholders.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, noted that the lack of regional and party diversity among the governors limited the perspectives the committee heard.

“No implied criticism at all. I thought it was actually pretty compelling testimony,” Connolly said after the hearing. But he added: “I would like to have seen, maybe, a broader point of view represented here.”

Alabama Rep. Gary Palmer, a Republican who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on intergovernmental affairs said he’d welcome written statements from other governors and that the committee had made a “big effort to try to get other governors here.”

Palmer also said he saw opportunities for incorporating input the governors on hand provided into future legislation. “I think there’s gonna be some issues related to unfunded mandates that would be worked into legislation,” he told Route Fifty. “What I really hope we do is work on some changes to the permitting, where you’ve got states, like western states, where so much of the land is federal land.”

Reducing federal permitting and approval times for various projects is one of the pillars of the infrastructure investment proposal that the Trump administration unveiled earlier this month.

There’s some acknowledgement across party lines that permitting processes can take lengthy amounts of time. But sticking points lie in the details about how to speed things up. Conservation groups have already branded Trump’s proposal as a risk to the environment.

Martinez told the committee that her state takes just 10 days to review new oil and gas drilling permits, but that it takes the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, in New Mexico, an average of 250 days, resulting in a backlog of 800 applications.

“If the BLM were to delegate its oil and gas review process to New Mexico and to other western states for these resources on federal lands, states like Montana and Utah, it would result in billions of dollars of additional state and federal revenue,” she said.

Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s lands protection program rejected the governors characterization of BLM permitting. "We don't know what she's complaining about,” he said by phone. “We think BLM, frankly, permits too much oil and gas leasing on federal land.”

The Sierra Club’s New Mexico chapter director, Camilla Feibelman, added by email that environmental oversight and inspection there is "wildly underfunded” and said the idea the state would have the budget to quickly process more permits is "out of touch with reality."

Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican, chairs a special House panel on intergovernmental issues launched last year, known as the Speaker’s Task Force on Intergovernmental Affairs. He asked the governors to submit specific recommendations to the task force that might, in their view, improve the interplay between the feds and their states.

“Should states have not just standing, which they have, but special standing, in order to sue on issues that are imposed upon you?” Bishop suggested.

“Consult us at the beginning,” Otter said in response to Bishop’s solicitation for ideas. “Generally what we find is we’re invited late to the party.” (The “party” being the federal policy-making process.)

“Perfect,” Bishop said. “Help me find a place that we can statutorily mandate that.”

The governors indicated they were generally pleased with the direction of federal-state relations under Trump.

Otter highlighted a controversial executive order he signed in January clearing the way for health insurance companies to sell coverage in his state that does not conform to guidelines in the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare. He said actions taken by Congress and the White House encouraged him to issue the directive.

“Hope abounds,” Otter added. “I want to express my appreciation to Congress and the current administration for working to restore the standing of states as true partners in governance.”

Herbert echoed that view. “We are currently enjoying a season of good relationships with many federal agencies,” he said. “Many of whom are trying to push decision-making back down to the states.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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