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States’ Rights: the Other Side of the Coin

The old saying that “there are two sides to every coin” is now playing out in the policy arena over states’ rights. The Sagebrush Rebellion of the ’80s and its states’ rights off-shoots like the recent Bundy attempts to commandeer federal lands were and are centered on exploiting those publicly owned lands for private profit. But the other side of that coin is states aggressively fighting the federal government over the Trump administration’s policies, from taxation to immigration to opening vast areas of federal lands and waters to resource extraction with little regard for environmental impacts.

This new face of states’ rights leaped into the public’s attention when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced off-shore oil development would be approved for all the nation’s coastal areas. But of course, as has come to be the norm for the Trump presidency, Florida was almost instantly considered for an exception since the governor is a Republican and the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort certainly can’t have oil spills washing up on its beaches.

But those states that didn’t vote for Trump, or that have Democratic governors, or are simply seeking to preserve their social, fiscal and environmental resources, are now leading a much larger battle for states’ rights than the Bundys could ever have imagined.

In New York the attorney general has already filed over 100 challenges to the Trump administration on issues including immigration, education, energy and reproductive rights. New Jersey and Connecticut are joining New York to challenge the new federal tax plan, which they say unfairly penalizes already high-tax states. As New Jersey’s governor put it recently: “I suspect New Jersey, and my guess is Connecticut and New York and other like-minded states, will find themselves far more often than not joining actions together and pushing back on this hostile administration.” For those who think it may be just another partisan squabble, consider that the Republican governors of Maryland and Illinois are also trying to find workarounds to avoid the federal tax hit on their residents.

California, the nation’s most populous state, is not only engaged in a battle over U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session’s pledge to crack down on state-legalized medical or recreational marijuana, but has joined 15 other states in challenging Trump’s threat to cut federal funding to “sanctuary cities.” And then there’s off-shore drilling, which prompted California’s lieutenant governor to announce last week: “I am resolved that not a single drop from Trump’s new oil plan ever makes landfall in California.”

A rather astounding 22 states have also filed suit to stop the Federal Communications Commission’s move to abandon net neutrality. To his credit, Montana’s Gov. Steve Bullock was the first in the nation to announce that companies that did not support net neutrality would not be considered for state contracts.

Interior Secretary Zinke’s latest announcement that some national monuments would be opened to oil and gas and mining claims will undoubtedly stoke further resistance to Trump’s lopsided resource extraction policies in which the environment, tourism economies and national treasures are sacrificed for short-term corporate profits.

Some are saying the growing resistance to Trump policies will precipitate a constitutional crisis, and they may be right. But one thing seems crystal clear right now; states that feel threatened by a wide array of executive orders, agency and congressional actions are now more than willing to wade into the fray with the federal government. And you can bet this is a lot bigger than grazing cows on public lands without paying the fees — especially for an administration that already seems at war with itself.

 

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George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

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