No More Room for Collard Greens on Lawmakers' Menu?
IN poll after poll, Americans say they want tax cuts, welfare reform, term limits, and balanced budgets. Rarely do they say anything about collard greens. But this year, the North Carolina state legislature spent a day debating whether this Southern staple should remain the ''official state vegetable,'' or be deposed by the sweet potato. North Carolina lawmakers also took time to ban the sale of smoke bombs to minors, recognize the government of Taiwan, and limit (to 20) the number of students a barber can teach at one time. These issues certainly aren't any less arcane than some debated in the United States Congress. But as the federal government prepares to cede more responsibility to states for complex programs such as welfare and Medicare, some experts warn that state lawmakers will have to spend more time focusing on the big picture, and not sweet potatoes. ''A lot of the issues the [North Carolina] legislature addressed this year have nothing to do with improving government,'' says Andrew Cline, a research fellow at the John Locke Institute in Raleigh, N.C. ''They're all about the government playing the role of a parent, or reinforcing laws that already exist.'' For example, Mr. Cline says, the legislature created a separate crime classification for any North Carolinian who ''assaults a school bus driver, school-bus monitor, or school-bus employee.'' Nevermind, he says, that assault itself is already a crime. The backlog of such less-than-monumental legislation helped make the recently concluded statehouse session here the fourth-longest in North Carolina's history, Cline says, even though state lawmakers chose to shelve two hot-button issues: welfare reform and tax cuts. ''Some people who get elected can't see the forest through the trees,'' he says. ''They're so engrossed in their own constituents' concerns that they don't care about taking on legitimate reforms.'' Needless legislation Tim Storey, a policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, says North Carolina is not alone. The problem of needless legislation has worsened, even as legislatures grow both bigger in size and more professional. In the last 10 to 15 years, as pay levels and staff sizes have risen, Mr. Storey says, more legislators ''have made a concerted effort to make themselves more accessible to constituents'' by providing toll-free numbers and Internet addresses. Cable channels dedicated to state government have sprung up in many cities around the country making it easier to keep tabs on the legislature. As a result, he says, the amount of time state lawmakers spend on narrowly focused bills has stayed about the same, despite the fact that new reform efforts like health care and welfare require immense investments of time. As more states consider imposing strict limits on session lengths, Storey says, the window for substantial reforms could actually shrink. But the real measure of whether state governments will be able to handle federal mandates lies with the federal government itself, says Robert Behn, director of the Governor's Center at Duke University. ''The fewer mandates Congress includes with the block grants, the easier life is,'' he says. ''Some governors are worried that they will get less money and more regulations,'' he says, a situation that would tax the abilities of state lawmakers. On voters' shoulders Yet Cline contends that part of the solution depends on the voters. While more Americans espouse limited and more efficient government, Cline says, they continue to ''think that state government is a good place to go to solve their problems.'' Until people realize that ''the legislature is the last place to go to solve problems - that it's much better to solve these problems locally,'' he argues, state governments will not be able to effectively deal with major reforms. While there is a ''vocal minority who doesn't want to take responsibility'' for congressional mandates like welfare, Cline insists that ''most state legislators in North Carolina are eager to take on the extended power.'' The legislature will never get rid of trivial debates, Cline says. But the transition period should not be too difficult, he adds, because the only option for state legislators will be to get the big work done or be cooped up in the statehouse all summer, or else flirt with federal deadlines. ''Newspapers cover the substantial issues,'' Cline says. ''If lawmakers don't get these things accomplished, they won't be able to do anything at all. The last thing they want is to be seen as dilly dallying around.''