What the Recent Special Session Should Teach Us


September 14, 2016 11:04AM

This week, Gov. Haslam called the General Assembly into a rare special session. At issue was a bill that passed earlier this year right-sizing penalties for DUI offenses by those under 21 years old. After the bill passed, the federal Department of Transportation claimed that this new law conflicted with federal law and threatened to withhold $60 million in transportation funding if the state didn’t get back in line.

In the short run, in order to avoid losing significant federal funding, calling this special session was the right thing to do. Long-term, however, I hope it makes people realize something very troubling. Tennessee is a puppet on strings. And the federal government is in control of those strings. It is far too easy for faceless federal bureaucrats to force us to dance to their tune.

More than half of Tennessee’s annual state budget is made up of federal funds. Only two states—Mississippi and Louisiana—rely more heavily on the federal government to make ends meet. When you need that much money from the feds, you become beholden to them in many other ways as well. This reliance is precisely why one individual federal agency can force a governor to call duly elected state legislators back to the Capitol to simply change a state law.

It’s time we got serious about the consequences of exporting state autonomy to Washington in exchange for federal dollars. The examples of this problem are abundant. Medicaid (which some are trying to expand even more using additional federal dollars), education, transportation, entitlements…the list of programs we rely on federal funding to operate go on. It’s important to note that every time we take those federal dollars to fund these programs, we send a slice of control back to Washington.

For our fiscal sake, Tennessee must free itself financially from the Washington ball and chain. We need to first examine how much we truly rely on the federal government to operate our state, as well as what we are giving up in exchange. Then, we must demand federal reforms such as block grants for many of these programs, so that our state leaders have the flexibility our Founders envisioned—to operate as one of 50 laboratories of democracy. Lastly, in some cases, we should just outright reject federal funding if it means giving up too much state autonomy.

States are meant to be independent of and indeed a check on the federal government, not federal subsidiaries. This week’s special session shows that we have a long way to go to before that’s a reality.