Eagleton Institute at Rutgers hosts timely lecture on 'The State of the States'
On Monday evening, the Eagleton Institute of Politics welcomed Gary Moncrief, a consulting scholar at Eagleton and a professor at Boise State University in Idaho, to speak about the relationship between federal and state governments in the era of President Donald J. Trump.
Director of the Eagleton Institute, Dr. Ruth Mandel, noted as she opened the program that the name of the lecture, is "not necessarily optimistically" entitled “The State of the States in a State of Confusion.”
More than 90 students, faculty members and members of the community attended the program, where the professor addressed the condition of federalism under the current presidential administration.
“Today, we have a unified government at the state level, but not a united government at the national level,” he said.
Since 1961 there has been divided government at the national level, Moncrief said. Divided government occurs when the executive branch and one or both legislative chambers are controlled by different parties.
On the contrary, there has been increasingly unified government at the state level, he said. This means that one party controls both the executive and legislative branch — since 2010, more than 30 states have consistently had unified government.
“To me, that explains something about why the states have had more policy power over the last few years: they’re on the same track, and on the federal level, this is not necessarily true,” he said.
Moncrief said to the audience that states play a critical role in shaping policy for their residents, citing their ability to pass legislation in direct defiance of federal laws on subjects like legalizing assisted suicide and marijuana, as well as more stringent environmental policies.
“Some things can be done in the next couple of years ... that will have a direct challenge to government, and will exacerbate the contention between state and federal legislature,” he said.
During an interview, Moncrief said state governments rarely get as much media coverage as the federal government — particularly on the east coast, there is less awareness of state government and more focus on Washington D.C.
“The most important thing ... is that most people don’t really appreciate the importance of states,” he said.
He said explaining that individual states are extremely important in shaping domestic politics.
“Education is primarily the responsibility of the state,” he said.
States are also heavily involved in social services, police and corrections, and infrastructure issues.
Despite the many capabilities of states, the federal government still has a crucial role to play in state government functions, such as funding, Moncrief said.
Due to objectives of the current presidential administration, “the federal aid component of state budgets is going to get smaller, which will put a serious crimp on what states are able to do,” he said.
This has direct ramifications at a time when “the states are already weakened,” he said, noting that 33 states had lower than projected revenue in the fiscal year 2017 and that 19 states have yet to fully recover to pre-recession income levels.
In addition, he said, there were a record number of states that missed their budget deadline in 2017, including New Jersey.
“The state of the states, particularly today, is clearly a state of confusion,” Moncrief said.
An interesting result of this situation, he remarked, is that the significance of a governor’s role has increased — the upcoming elections present an opportunity for Democrats to regain ground.
“Between this year and next, there will be 38 gubernatorial elections,” he said.
Twenty-seven of those are currently Republicans. New Jersey and Virginia will hold gubernatorial elections this year, and 36 other states will hold them in 2018.
“Democrats recognize they’ve got to get back in the game, and the place where they’re most likely to get back in the game is at the state level,” he said.
Moncrief said that currently, New Jersey, along with Nevada, New Mexico, Illinois, Michigan, and possibly Florida are the most likely to see a change from a Republican governor to a Democratic governor during the next two years of elections.
“All of Eagleton’s public programs, including this one, present experts who illuminate timely topics,” said Kathy Kleeman, the senior communications officer for the Eagleton Institute.
In addition to his public talk in the evening, Moncrief also spoke to students in the "Legislative Policymaking" class taught at Eagleton earlier in the day, Kleeman said.
This program was the second to be supported by the Alan Rosenthal Fund for the Study of State Government and Politics, Mandel said, which honors the late Alan Rosenthal, former director of Eagleton, respected professor and nationally acclaimed expert on state government and state legislatures.
Moncrief, who has worked with the late Alan Rosenthal, is the author of six books and more than 55 journal articles and book chapters on various aspects of state politics — among his most recent books is “Why States Matter: An Introduction to State Politics,” the second edition of which was published following the 2016 presidential election.
“The Rosenthal funds are used by the Institute to broaden the students’ exposure to state government, and also to seek opportunities to build on Alan’s work in meaningful ways,” Mandel said to the audience.
Christina Gaudino is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in public policy. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.