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Unscrambling the fed/state omelet

The results of this week's conference of governors could go beyond the current Washington air of you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. The governors could start unmaking a different omelet: the "undifferentiated governmental omelet," as one governor has put it, into which federal and state functions have too long been scrambled.

Warnings were sounded during the presidential campaign when Ronald Reagan spoke about "states' rights" and some took the phrase as code against civil rights. It should not be taken or intended that way. There is a legitimate constitutional meaning for states' rights that is not in conflict with enforcing federal law. And there is a periodic need to reexamine not only the rights of states but their proper economic roles in relation to the fedeal government. For federalism to flourish it must be perennially defined and confirmed.

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No better opportunity presents itself than when a states' rights Presiden calls for a wholesale rethinking of what government should and shouldn't do -- and who should pay the freight. Last fall a number of governors launched an agenda for reform. They called for swift administrative steps for greater efficiency in the mix of federal-state functions and for a nationwide program of meetings to educate the public toward long-range legislative or even constitutional change.

Much could be learned as well as taught by the governors under such a program , and it would be wise to await the outcome before plunging too far ahead. Yet matters being discussed this week give an idea of questions to be pursued further.

Many federal programs have sprung up in what was felt to be the absence of adequate state and local measures. Are the states prepared to take over or take back functions and maintain or improve their effectiveness? The answers may be different from what they were before the spread of population and industry adding up to a greater decentralization of means and ends.

Among the suggestions are to eliminate federal educational funding, which is relatively small anyway, and leave the financing and control of education to the states; to reduce the federal role in transportation and give more of a share to the states; to see welfare, on the other hand, as a national responsibility and establish consistent federal standards as well as the funding to maintain them. There has been some talk at the governors' meeting of items so specific as turning the four-cent-a-gallon federal gasoline tax over to the states -- or seeking an increase in and turning the increase over to the states.

These are just a few matters to be considered, and philosophy as well as economics is part of the process. It would be unfortunate if the latest exercise in federalism were to become simply a matter of political trade-offs. It seems that both the administration and the present crop of governors are interested in something more fundame ntal. That will be all to the good as the debate goes on.

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