By Carl Graham
Originally posted by the Sutherland Institute on August 27, 2013

Last week I ran across a Salt Lake Tribune story telling how some local governments and water districts are feeling the pinch as their state funding, which is dependent on federal funding, begins to dry up.

State and local dependence on federal dollars is nothing new. Utah gets about 30 percent of its budget from D.C., most of which is channeled downstream to the local level for everything from water testing to health care and much, much more.

So is dependence bad? As with most things, it depends (insert your own diaper joke here).

Kids are dependents. The old, the infirm, even the unlucky may come to rely on their fellow man. Truth is, we’re all dependents at some points in our lives. But it’s usually a condition, not a choice, and when it is a choice, most of us tend to see it as something to get out of, not to get comfortable with. As Thucydides said, there’s no shame in poverty, only in not trying to escape it.

So why do our state and local governments pursue rather than eschew dependence on federal dollars and accept all the strings that come attached to them? Why do they trade their freedoms for an annual appropriation?

It’s a tough question, but it’s one that will have to be answered as federal discretionary spending inevitably tightens. Our state and local governments now need federal dollars to meet their budgets, and as those dollars shrink, either the goods and services that those dollars buy will shrink, or our taxes will go up to fill the gap. We’ve enjoyed the fruits of dependence for quite a while, and just like teenagers off to school we probably won’t realize how good we had it until it’s gone. Which brings up another point.

The greatness of this republic, at least theoretically, is based on an active, informed electorate governing itself. We’ve lost a lot of that because, as funding has been centralized to Washington D.C., so have the basic decisions about what we should spend our money on and how we should be governed. We’ve lost interest at least in part because, with all the power so far away, we don’t have much influence anyway.

So if anything good comes out of less federal funding, it might be that it forces us to govern ourselves. Local taxes might go up, services might go down, or more likely there will be some combination of those two things as we get kicked out of the federal nest. But we’ll decide that combination, not some bureaucrat in D.C. or politician with a lobbyist at his or her arm.

We might even be forced to reclaim some of our freedoms. Hopefully we’ll remember how to use them.

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