Building a Stronger State-Federal Relationship

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Western Governors' Association
Policy Resolution 2017-01

Building a Stronger State-Federal Relationship


The Governors of the West are proud of their unique role in governing and serving the citizens of this great nation. They recognize that the position they occupy – the chief elected official of a sovereign state – imposes upon them enormous responsibility and confers upon them tremendous opportunity. Moreover, the faithful discharge of their obligations is central to the success of the Great American Experiment.

It was, after all, the states that confederated to form a more perfect union by creating a national government of limited and defined powers. The grant of specific responsibilities for irreducibly common interests – such as national defense and interstate commerce – was brilliantly designed to make the whole stronger than the sum of its parts.

The genius of American democracy is predicated on the separation of powers among branches of government (viz. the legislative, executive and judiciary) and the division of power between the federal and state governments (federalism). Under the American version of federalism, the powers of the federal government are narrow, enumerated and defined. The powers of the states, on the other hand, are vast and indefinite. States are responsible for executing all powers of governance not specifically bestowed to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution. This principle is memorialized in the Tenth Amendment, which states in its entirety, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

This reservation of power to the states respects the differences between regions and peoples. It recognizes a right to self-determination at a local level. It rejects the notion that one size fits all, and it provides for a rich tapestry of local cultures, economies and environments.

Because of the Constitutional recognition of state sovereignty, the states have been appropriately regarded as laboratories of democracy. States regularly engage in a kind of cooperative competition in the marketplace of ideas. Western Governors are leaders in innovative governance who employ their influence and executive authority to promote initiatives for improvement of their states’ economies, environments and quality of life.

Despite the foregoing, the balance of power has, over the years, shifted toward the federal government and away from the states. The growth in the size, cost and scope of the federal government attests to this new reality. Increasingly prescriptive regulations infringe on state authority, tie the hands of states and local governments, dampen innovation and impair on-the-ground problem-solving. Failures of the federal government to consult with states reflect a lesser appreciation for local knowledge, preferences and competencies.

The inauguration of a new Administration presents a historic opportunity to realign the state-federal relationship. Western Governors are excited to work in true partnership with the federal government. By operating as authentic collaborators on the development and execution of policy, the states and federal government can demonstrably improve their service to the public. Western Governors are optimistic that the new Administration will be eager to unleash the power and creativity of states for the common advantage of our country. By working cooperatively with the states, the Administration can create a legacy of renewed federalism, resulting in a nation that is stronger, more resilient and more united. Such an outcome will redound to the credit of the Administration and inure to the benefit of the American people.


  1. The relationship between state government authority and federal government authority is complex and multi-dimensional. There are various contexts in which the authorities of these respective levels of U.S. government manifest and intersect. For example:
    1. Exclusive Federal Authority – There are powers that are specifically enumerated by the U.S. Constitution as exclusively within the purview of the federal government. (1)
    2. State Primacy – States derive independent rights and responsibilities under the U.S. Constitution. All powers not specifically delegated to the federal government are reserved for the states; in this instance, the legal authority of states overrides that of that federal government. (2) Governors have responsibilities for the condition of land, air, forest, wildlife and water resources, as well as energy and minerals development, within their state’s borders.
    3. Shared State-Federal Authority – In some cases, state and/or federal authority can apply, given a particular fact pattern. (3) Federal preemption of state law is a concern under this scenario. According to the Council on State Governments, the federal government enacted only 29 statutes that pre-empted state law before 1900. Since 1900, however, there have been more than 500 instances of federal preemption of state law.
    4. State Authority “Delegated” from Federal Agencies by Federal Statute – The U.S. Congress has, by statute, provided for the delegation to states of authority over certain federal program responsibilities. Many statutory regimes – federal environmental programs, for example – contemplate establishment of federal standards, with delegated authority (permissive) available to states that wish to implement those standards. According to the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), states have chosen to accept responsibility for 96 percent of the primary federal environmental programs that are available for delegation to states. States currently execute the vast majority of natural resource regulatory tasks, including 96 percent of the enforcement and compliance actions and collection of more than 94 percent of the environmental quality data currently held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
    5. Other – Where the federal government has a statutory, historical or “moral” obligation to states. (4)
  2. Over time, the strength of the federal-state partnership in resource management has diminished. Federal agencies are increasingly challenging state decisions, imposing additional federal regulation or oversight and requiring documentation that can be unnecessary and duplicative. In many cases, these federal actions encroach on state legal prerogatives, especially in natural resource management. In addition, these federal actions neglect state expertise and diminish the statutorily-defined role of states in exercising their authority to manage delegated environmental protection programs.
  3. The current fiscal environment exacerbates tensions between states and federal agencies. For example, states have a particular interest in improving the active management of federal forest lands. The so-called “fire borrowing” practice employed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to fund wildfire suppression activities is negatively affecting restoration and wildfire mitigation work in western forests. Changes are needed, as the current funding situation has allowed severe wildfires to burn through crippling amounts of the very funds that should instead be used to prevent and reduce wildfire impacts, costs, and safety risks to firefighters and the public. This also has impacts on local fire protection districts, which often bear the brunt of costs associated with first response to wildfire, and state budgets that are also burdened by the costs of wildfire response. Fire borrowing represents an unacceptable set of outcomes for taxpayers and at-risk communities, and does not reflect responsible stewardship of federal land. In addition, states increasingly are required to expend their limited resources to operate regulatory programs over which they have less and less control. A 2015 report by the White House Office of Management and Budget on the costs of federal regulation and the impact of unfunded mandates notes that federal mandates cost states, cities and the general public between $57 and $85 billion every year.
  4. States are willing and prepared to more effectively partner with the federal government on the management of natural resources within their borders.
  5. The U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations – established in 1959 and dissolved in 1996 – was the federal government's major platform for addressing broad intergovernmental issues beyond narrow considerations of individual programs and activities.
  6. The current Executive Order on Federalism (E.O. 13132) was issued by then-President William Clinton in 1999. That E.O. has not been revisited since and it may be time to consider a new E.O.


  1. Review of the Federal-State-Local Relationship
    1. It is time for thoughtful federal-state-local government review of the federal Executive Order on Federalism to identify areas in the policy that can be clarified and improved to increase cooperation and efficiency.
    2. Governors support reestablishment of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. It is imperative that the President show his commitment to the Constitutional separation of powers by establishing a platform at the highest level to address federalism concerns.
  2. Avoiding Preemption of States
    1. In the absence of Constitutional delegation of authority to the federal government, state authority should be presumed sovereign. Accordingly, federal departments and agencies should, to the extent permitted by law, construe, in regulations and otherwise, a federal statute to preempt state law only when the statute contains an express preemption provision or there is some other firm evidence compelling the conclusion that Congress intended preemption of state law, consistent with established judicial precedent.
    2. When Congress, acting under authority granted to it by the Constitution, does preempt state environmental laws, federal legislation should:
      1. Accommodate state actions taken before its enactment;
      2. Permit states that have developed stricter standards to continue to enforce them;
      3. Permit states that have developed substantially similar standards to continue to adhere to them without change and, where applicable, without consideration to land ownership.
  3. Defining Meaningful State-Federal Consultation
    1. Each Executive department and agency should be required to have a clear and accountable process to provide each state – through its Governor as the top elected official of the state and other representatives of state and local governments as he or she may designate – with early, meaningful and substantive input in the development of regulatory policies that have federalism implications. This includes the development, prioritization and implementation of federal environmental statutes, policies, rules, programs, reviews, budgets and strategic planning.
    2. Consistent with C(2) and C(3)(a), federal agencies should consult with states in a meaningful way, and on a timely basis.
      1. Predicate Involvement: Federal agencies should take into account state data and expertise in development and analysis of underlying science serving as the legal basis for federal regulatory action. States merit greater representation on all relevant committees and panels (such as the EPA Science Advisory Board and related issue panels) advising federal agencies on scientific, technological, social and economic issues that inform federal regulatory processes.
      2. Pre-Publication / Federal Decision-making Stage: Federal agencies should engage in early (pre-rulemaking) consultation with Governors and state regulators. This should include substantive consultation with states during development of rules or decisions and a review by states of the proposal before a formal rulemaking is launched (i.e., before such proposals are sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget).
      3. Post-Publication / Pre-Finalization Stage: As they receive additional information from state agencies and non-governmental entities, Governors and designated state officials should have the opportunity to engage with federal agencies on an ongoing basis to seek refinements to proposed federal regulatory actions prior to finalization.
  4. State Authority “Delegated” from Federal Agencies Pursuant to Federal Statute Where states are delegated authority by federal agencies pursuant to legislation:
    1. Federal agencies should treat states as co-regulators, taking into account state views, expertise and science in the development of any federal action impacting state authority.
    2. Federal agencies should grant states the maximum administrative discretion possible. Any federal oversight of such state should not unnecessarily intrude on state and local discretion. Where states take proactive actions, those efforts should be recognized and credited in the federal regulatory process.
    3. When a state is meeting the minimum requirements of a delegated program, the role of a federal department or agency should be limited to the provision of funding, technical assistance and research support. States should be free to develop implementation and enforcement approaches within their respective jurisdictions without intervention by the federal government.
    4. New federal rules and regulations should, to the extent possible, be consistent with existing rules and regulations. The issuing agency should identify elements and requirements common to both the proposed and existing regulations and provide states an opportunity to develop plans addressing the requirements of both in a coordinated fashion. This will achieve economies of scale, saving both time and money.
    5. When a federal department or agency proposes to take adjudicatory actions that impact authority delegated to states, notice should be provided to affected Governors’ offices, and co-regulating states should have the opportunity to participate in the proceedings. Where legally permissible, that right should extend to federal agencies’ settlement negotiations impacting state environmental and natural resource management prerogatives. Where their roles and responsibilities are impacted, states should be meaningfully consulted during settlement negotiations, including negotiations aimed at avoiding, rather than resolving, litigation (such as negotiations following a notice of intent to sue under the Endangered Species Act, but prior to a formal complaint being filed to initiate legal action).
    6. States’ expertise should be recognized by federal agencies and robustly represented on boards and in other mechanisms upon which agencies rely for development of science to support regulatory action.
  5. Other Opportunities for Positive Engagement by the Federal Government with Western States
    1. Federalism Reviews – Federal agencies are required by federal Executive Order 13132 to consider and quantify consequences of federal actions on states. In practice, the current process falls short of its stated goals. Governors call on the President to revisit the executive order to, among other things:
      1. Specifically involve Western Governors on issues (e.g., public lands, water and species issues) that disproportionately impact the West;
      2. Work with Governors to develop specific criteria and consultation processes: 1) for the initiation of federalism assessments and 2) that guide the performance of every federal Department and agency federalism assessment;
      3. Require federal Departments and agencies to meet the criteria developed under C(5)(a)(ii), rather than simply require the consideration of federalism implications;
      4. Provide states, through Governors, an opportunity to comment on federalism assessments before any covered federal action is submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for approval.
    2. Federal and State Land-Use Planning – Governors possess primary decision-making authority for management of state resources. Accordingly, it is essential that they have an opportunity to review new, revised and amended federal land management plans for consistency with existing state plans. Governors and their staffs have specific knowledge and experience that can help federal agencies craft effective and beneficial plans. A substantive role in federal agencies’ planning processes is vital for Western Governors:
      1. Federal landscape-level planning presents new issues for Governors to consider as they attempt to ensure consistency between state and federal requirements. Agencies should provide Governors sufficient time to ensure a full and complete state review. This is particularly true when agency plans affect multiple planning areas or resources;
      2. Agencies should seek to align the review of multiple plans affecting the same resource. This is particularly true for threatened or endangered species that have vast western ranges;
      3. When reviewing proposed federal land management plans for consistency with state plans, Governors should be afforded the discretion to determine which state plans are pertinent to the review, including state-endorsed land use plans such as State Wildlife Action Plans, conservation district plans, county plans and multi-state agreements;
      4. Governors must retain a right to appeal any rejection of recommendations resulting from a Governor’s consistency review.
    3. Honoring Historic Agreements – The federal government should honor its historic agreements with states and counties in the West to compensate them for state and local impacts associated with federal land use and nontaxable lands within their borders that are federally-owned.
    4. Responsible Federal Land Management – The federal government should be a responsible landowner and neighbor and should work diligently to improve the health of federally-owned lands in the West. Lack of funding and conflicting policies have resulted in large wildfires and the spread of invasive species from federally owned forests and grasslands, negatively impacting adjacent state and privately-owned lands, as well as state-managed natural resources (soils, air and water).
    5. Recognizing State Contributions to Federal Land Management – The U.S. Congress and appropriate federal departments and agencies should provide opportunities for expanded cooperation, particularly where states are working to help their federal partners to improve management of federal lands within their states’ borders through the contribution of state expertise, manpower and financial resources.
    6. Avoiding Unfunded Mandates – The U.S. Congress and federal departments and agencies should avoid the imposition of unfunded federal mandates on states. The federal government increasingly requires states to carry out policy initiatives without providing the funding necessary to pay for implementation. State governments cannot function as full partners if the federal government requires them to devote their limited resources to compliance with unfunded federal mandates.
    7. Other Considerations in Designing an Effective State-Federal Relationship – Other important considerations in the design of a stronger state-federal relationship include:
      1. The U.S. Congress and federal departments and agencies should respect the authority of states to determine the allocation of administrative and financial responsibilities within states in accordance with state constitutions and statutes. Federal action should not encroach on this authority.
      2. Federal assistance funds, including funds that will be passed through to local governments, should flow through states according to state laws and procedures.
      3. States should be given flexibility to transfer a limited amount of funds from one grant program to another, and to administer related grants in a coordinated manner.
      4. Federal funds should provide maximum state flexibility without specific set-asides.
      5. States should be given broad flexibility in establishing federally-mandated advisory groups, including the ability to combine advisory groups for related programs.
      6. Governors should be given the authority to require coordination among state executive branch agencies, or between levels or units of government, as a condition of the allocation or pass-through of funds.
      7. Federal government monitoring should be outcome-oriented.
      8. Federal reporting requirements should be minimized.
      9. The federal government should not dictate state or local government organization.


  1. The Governors direct the WGA staff, where appropriate, to work with Congressional committees of jurisdiction and the Executive Branch to achieve the objectives of this resolution.
  2. Furthermore, the Governors direct WGA staff to develop, as appropriate and timely, detailed annual work plans to advance the policy positions and goals contained in this resolution. Those work plans shall be presented to, and approved by, Western Governors prior to implementation. WGA staff shall keep the Governors informed, on a regular basis, of their progress in implementing approved annual work plans.

pdfClick here to download a PDF of this policy.

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