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February 22, 2018

2/2/2017 7:25:00 AM
Federalism is a watchword in new year
Lawmakers launch efforts to restore constitutional balance

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

It's been a heady time since the inauguration of President Donald Trump for proponents of federalism - the idea that states are sovereign governments except for powers expressly delegated through the U.S. Constitution to the federal government - and it was no different last week in Wisconsin as the new state legislative session got down to serious business.

Among other things, a newly created Assembly Committee on Federalism held its first public hearing, a group of lawmakers sent a letter to Congress pushing for the repeal of unfunded federal mandates, and, to substantiate how pervasive the reach of the federal government has become, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute released data on the federalization of the state Department of Public Instruction.

And just how federalized is the DPI? Quite a lot, according to the data, which was published in an article by WPRI's Project for 21st Century Federalism.

Indeed, almost 50 percent of DPI employees are carrying water for the federal government almost full time as they carry out some 59 federal education-related programs, the article asserted this past week.

"Outside of the University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, which administers Medicaid, DPI receives more federal dollars than any other area of state government," the authors - Dan Benson, editor of WPRI's Project for 21st Century Federalism, and reporter David Daley - wrote.

Over the past two decades, the report continued, the department remained about the same size, but federal influence grew swiftly and steadily.

"In 1995, 185 DPI employees were paid by the federal government - 28 percent of the total," the authors wrote. "Today, the 302 workers in DPI personnel essentially on the federal payroll amount to 47 percent of the total."

Since the 1995-97 state budget, DPI's total budget increased 87 percent, from $7 billion to more than $13 billion today, the report added; during the same period, the federal contribution to DPI grew twice as fast, up 176 percent, from nearly $637 million to more than $1.7 billion.

WPRI said it reviewed more than 2,000 pages of time sheets kept by 298 DPI employees and has requested but not yet received job descriptions for those positions and their supervisors. Nonetheless, the group states, a review of job titles indicate that at least 45 percent of those who filled out time sheets were not involved in classroom work but were managing the flow of federal dollars.

Those positions included accountants, administrators, auditors, budget analysts, grant specialists and others, WPRI stated.

"All this raises questions about the amount of time and money spent on administration and bureaucracy rather than bettering the lives and minds of Wisconsin's children, as well as the extent to which local school districts must follow the dictates of Washington, D.C., bureaucrats and their counterparts in Madison rather than the wishes of parents, teachers, and local educators," Benson and Daley said.

Both Benson and Daley are former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters, WPRI stated, and Benson is a former Gannett editor.

A new committee on federalism

WPRI president Mike Nichols and Benson presented the data to the newly created Assembly Committee on Federalism and Interstate Affairs, which recently held its first hearing.

The DPI is far from the only area of state government to become increasingly federalized over recent decades, the two reported to the lawmakers.

"Twenty years ago, there were 4,382 full-time equivalent employees in state government (not counting the UW System) paid with federal dollars, according to budget documents reviewed by WPRI," they told lawmakers. "Today, there are 4,987 - an increase of 14 percent that represents more than 600 positions and tens of millions of dollars of additional, annual spending."

With the federal dollars, Nichols and Benson said, come a mountain of federal regulations, paperwork and state spending, much of which they say has gone uncounted at the state and local level.

One lawmaker, Rep. Josh Zepnick (D-Milwaukee), told Benson and Nichols that Milwaukee teachers in his district complain to him about the burden of paperwork requirements.

"Paperwork comes up all the time," WPRI reported him as saying, while he said teachers wonder if some of the paperwork is relevant or connected to their jobs.

With the federal Every Student Succeeds Act scheduled to take effect this fall, WPRI said the data on the reach and efficacy of federal education funding to DPI and local school districts could help inform debate on how the state should move forward on education policy.

"We believe that, if the state is truly given more latitude over education policy, it should examine how DPI is structured and intermingled with the federal bureaucracy," Nichols said. "Ultimately, Wisconsin must take advantage of any new opportunity to redirect its focus to actually serving and educating children rather than kowtowing to the federal government."

Members of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty's Center for Competitive Federalism also testified before the committee. They pointed out that the committee, along with its Senate counterpart, the Financial Services, Constitution and Federalism committee, which has yet to meet, are among the few legislative committees in the country devoted to the idea of federalism.

"As the first committee of its kind in Wisconsin and one of the few standing committees nationwide to focus on federalism, the committee is in a unique position to advance legislation that restores a constitutional relationship between the federal government and the states and raise the public's understanding of the progressive federal takeover of state institutions," CCF director Mario Loyola said.

WILL pointed out that the creation of the legislative committees coincided with Gov. Scott Walker's letter to President Trump, calling for reforms to restore the Founders' vision "for vigorous, innovative states."

Meanwhile, another group of lawmakers, including Assembly speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), was appealing to Congress to help undo unfunded federal mandates. The lawmakers penned a letter to U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

"Our goal is to plainly illustrate that these widespread mandates run up a huge tab on local governments and the private sector," Vos said. "Unfortunately, taxpayers end up footing the bill."

The legislators' letter included several examples of overly burdensome mandates, especially in areas of health care, the environment, and education.

"An overwhelmingly large number of mandates are on our schools and many stand in the way of educating our children," Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) said. "We need to free up our schools so teachers can teach and students can succeed."

Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) said the Wisconsin Assembly has already set an example for Congress to follow with its Red Tape Review initiative, which he said is aimed at helping improving the state's business climate and removing burdensome regulations.

"It's an encouraging sign that Congress is following the direction given by President Trump and looking for ways to send power back to the states and the American people as our founding fathers envisioned from the start," Sanfelippo said.

Ending federal mandates could increase responsibilities for state government, Vos said, and that's one of the reasons he created the Assembly Committee on Federalism. The committee's chairman is Rep. Tyler Vorpagel (R-Plymouth).

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