STATES' RIGHTS: OLD IDEA WHOSE TIME HAS COME

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We're balancing budgets, we're reforming welfare, we're fixing healthcare, we're dealing with crime. Our message will be to congressional leaders, people of this country: Give us the ball and get out of the way. We can solve these problems."

We've tried everything else. Why shouldn't we empower the states to take responsibility for solving problems that have so far eluded the federal government, as suggested by the new president of the Republican Governors Association, Mike Leavitt of Utah.

Private industry has been pushing authority to lower and lower levels as companies downsize and re-engineer. They've also been merging to gain greater efficiencies.

The way I envision it, the federal government should function as a big holding company, whose principal job would be to dispense money and resources to the states. And the states would become hotbeds of experimental solutions to welfare, crime, schools-precisely at the level where the problems exist.

But to play this important new role, the states must become stronger and more efficient. Some are too big, some are too small.

So what we need is a realignment of the states. Upstate New York, for instance, doesn't have much in common with downstate New York, as Gov.-elect Pataki and Mayor Giuliani could tell you. Better that the upstate portion should become a part of Vermont. And maybe the upper and lower portions of Illinois and Indiana would fit together better than the way they are now.

The point is that the problems of rural areas are far removed from the problems of big cities, and state governments are having a difficult time juggling the needs of both. And residents of small towns resent their tax money going into such big-city concerns as the homeless, AIDS and drugs, while city dwellers don't see the need for heavy spending on county roads, conservation and the like.

As long as voters have opted for radical reform, as I believe they have, what law dictates that we have to stay with 50 states? I'll bet if you held a referendum, the rural citizens of any number of states would rather throw in with their neighboring rural brethren than continue to pay through the nose to bail out their big cities, especially if the acquiring state were to pay the acquired state a "luxury tax" like the baseball owners have suggested.

Gov. Pete Wilson of California, speaking at the Republican governors' meeting, made the case for self-sufficient independent state government: "We believe the states that we have been privileged to govern are just that. They are sovereign proud states of the United States. They are not colonies of the federal government."

If they merged and/or realigned, or formed strategic alliances to combine redundant services, the great states of our country would become more sovereign than ever, and we could make a start at solving the stubborn and intractable problems of our time.

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