The Power of the States

By Governor Gary Johnson

As the Governor of New Mexico, I spent eight years dealing with issues unique and specific to our state – addressing immigration, education, the privatization of our prison system, ways to streamline state agencies, and keeping our spending under control. During those eight years, we proved that, with a little common sense and by embracing the reality that government is not the answer to every question, spending can be controlled, bureaucracy can be reduced, and individuals can manage their own lives. Last December, after growing not just alarmed, but angry at the direction of the current government in Washington, we launched the OUR America Initiative to help give voice to those same ideas I put to work in New Mexico. Since then I’ve been traveling around the country, visiting a total of 23 states so far. During these travels, I’ve realized more than ever that not only are Americans ready for a very different direction, but that each of the 50 states must deal with its own unique set of challenges, needs and priorities.
As a nation, we’ve all been hearing a lot about states’ rights lately, particularly in the context of Arizona’s immigration reform law, and the Obama Administration’s very bad decision to challenge that state law in court.

I have said that I would not have signed the Arizona immigration law, because I’m concerned it could lead to racial profiling. But, having served as Governor of another border state, New Mexico, I empathize with Arizona’s frustration, and absolutely support the prerogative of that state’s officials to act. Think about it: Congress and the Federal Government have failed, due to political cowardice, to do anything meaningful about immigration reform; yet when a desperate border state does decide to do something, the Feds go running into court claiming that Arizona is trying to usurp their authority.

The situation in Arizona is a crystallizing example of how the Federal government has taken the very limited authority granted it by the Constitution and expanded that authority to make a mockery of States’ Rights and primacy. How many times have we heard in the weeks since the Arizona law was enacted that “Immigration is a Federal issue?” Certainly, securing our border and managing the flow of people across that border is an appropriate Federal role – consistent with the Constitution. But, where is it written in the founding documents that a state doesn’t have the right to enact its own laws and policies relating to immigrants, both legal and illegal, who choose to enter and reside in that state?

I would suggest that just the opposite is true. Every state is different, and is presented with its own challenges and opportunities related to immigration – and countless other issues. Rather than trying, as the Obama Administration is doing, to stop Arizona from implementing its own approach, we should be encouraging the states to be the policy laboratories they were intended to be in our Federal system.

Arizona feels it needs to enact state law to deal with illegal immigrants. Similarly, employers and farm producers in a state like Colorado need a guest worker program that actually meets their needs for reliable, economical and legal seasonal labor. Each state needs a system where willing employers and willing immigrant workers can connect in a practical, realistic and most importantly, legal, way. And if Congress lacks the courage to enact that kind of system, why shouldn’t state legislators be free to come up with policies that serve their unique needs? That is what state primacy and federalism are all about, and should be encouraged – not punished -- by an overreaching Federal government.

Immigration is the issue that is right in front of us today, but it is just the tip of the states’ rights iceberg. Education, welfare, health care, drug policy: These are just a few of the issues that have been slowly but surely usurped by the Feds – with no real basis in the Constitution or the clear intent of the Founders. As the Honorary Chairman of the Our America Initiative, challenging these Federal power grabs is one of my highest priorities. Someone needs to ask the obvious questions about why the Federal government insists on doing so much, spending so much, and attempting to ultimately control so many local issues. We can see where their approach has gotten us: Borrowing 43 cents of every dollar the government spends, with no end in sight.
The time has never been better for a long-overdue reassessment of the balance of power between the Federal government and the 50 individual states. If it takes a controversial Arizona immigration law, or an insane Federal takeover of health care to bring this debate to a head, so be it. Let’s have this debate and let common sense – and genuine states’ rights – prevail.

GARY JOHNSON is the honorary chairman of the OUR America Initiative (www.ouramericainitiative.com), a 501(c)(4) advocacy committee. He is also the former Republican Governor of New (1994-2002), and has been a consistent and outspoken advocate for efficient government and lowering taxes.