The recent Congressional elections resulted in a split decision with Democrats gaining control of the House and Republicans expanding their majority in the Senate. This outcome will almost certainly guarantee gridlock in Washington, D.C. — inevitably shifting attention to policy reforms in states, which remain our nation’s “laboratories of democracy.”
As Washington descends further into partisan warfare, there are a few major issues that must receive attention at the state and municipal level:
State Finances: Across the nation, state financial plans face a ticking time bomb. This largely is a result of three factors. First, public pension costs are becoming unsustainable. Second, entitlement costs, as at the federal level, are consuming an increasing portion of state budgets. Lastly, years of deferred maintenance have left states and cities with massive upcoming bills for infrastructure (roads, bridges, airports, mass transit, for example).
States largely have failed to adequately fund the backlog of projects during a time with record low unemployment and a record high stock market. When the economy enters a downturn, they are in big trouble.
Education: In Republican-controlled states, expect to see further expansion of school choice in the form of charter schools, educational savings accounts, and tax credits to encourage donations to K-12 scholarship programs. In all states, expect more serious consideration of non-college tracks for high-school graduates.
The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass, in his well-regarded new book, “The Once and Future Worker,” makes the case for focusing on jobs for all, instead of college for all. Cass argues that many non-college jobs offer a solid route to the middle class, with substantially lower debt.
With nearly 7 million existing jobs unfilled and the pipeline for skilled trades atrophied, states likely will focus more on apprenticeships and workforce training.
Housing and Homelessness: With the economy and stock market booming, high housing prices and rental rates in many cities are squeezing out economically disadvantaged and middle-class families. Some may urge rent controls.
This simplistic approach is politically appealing to some but has led to disinvestment in housing in regulated neighborhoods at a time when more housing is needed.
Homelessness is also a major issue from New York to Seattle. In New York City, the homeless population, which was 30,000 when Rudy Giuliani left office, now tops 60,000, with an explosive growth in street homelessness in the last few years, despite Mayor DiBlasio spending billions of dollars on affordable housing. In one of the wealthiest cities in the world, the homeless are living on the streets. This is an unacceptable moral failure that must be addressed.
Integrating Immigrants: States don’t control immigration, but they do have to deal with the consequences of immigration on public services, schools, crime, and social cohesion. A central challenge is assimilating immigrants into the broader population.
The late Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. argued that the “future of immigration policy depends on the capacity of the assimilation process to continue to do what it has done so well in the past: to lead newcomers to an acceptance of the language, the institutions, and the political ideals that hold the nation together.”
To a great extent, that assimilation process is within the purview of states and municipalities with the greatest concentration of immigrants.
Health Care: Under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the federal government agreed to match dollar for dollar with states that agreed to expand health care coverage under Medicaid. That 100-percent match phases down to a 90-percent match in 2020 and thereafter, forcing states to procure considerable funds in already tight budgets.
As of Election Day, 36 states (and Washington, D.C.), adopted the Medicaid expansion, with 14 states not adopting, according the Kaiser Family Foundation. Included in those 14 states were Kansas and Wisconsin, states where Democratic governors replaced Republican governors. Maine, a state that has approved but not yet implemented the expansion, is another state where a Republican governor was replaced by a Democrat.
These are critical public policy issues that must be addressed. As political posturing and positioning for 2020 immediately begin, our nation cannot afford to wait for the next election cycle to tackle these tough issues.
It’s incumbent upon our local elected officials to take action. How these issues are addressed will vary by state. And perhaps that’s a good thing.
While Washington bickers, let’s get those state laboratories going.
Thomas W. Carroll is president of the Invest in Education Foundation.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.