Last month, the Clinton-Gore Administration unveiled a new multibillion-dollar environmental agenda, including the so-called Livability Agenda and Lands Legacy Initiative, as well as efforts to begin implementation of the United Nations global warming treaty. Seeking to capitalize on public concern about suburban development, aka urban sprawl, the Clinton-Gore administration is proposing a $700 million subsidy for Environmental Protection Agency-approved bonds for local environmental projects. In the name of helping build livable communities, the Clinton-Gore administration will inject the EPA into local land-use decisions as never before.
The Clinton-Gore environmental agenda is part and parcel of the failed, government-knows-best approach to environmental protection. Protecting America’s environment does not call for the creation of new federal programs, but returning power to local communities, reigning in ineffective and outmoded bureaucracies, and restoring accountability. Government command and control is no friendlier to the ecology than it is to the economy.
Rather than challenge the Clinton-Gore agenda to environmental protection, many Republicans seem intent to jump on the governmentknows-best bandwagon. The Clinton-Gore administration is proposing approximately $1 billion in government land acquisitions.
Nearly half of this money will be used to purchase more land for the federal government, and yet federal agencies can scarcely manage the lands they own now Federal forests and grazing lands are in a state of disrepair due to political control. Uncle Sam already owns 25 percent of America’s land — one out of every four acres — he doesn’t need to own any more.
The loss of open space is a legitimate, if overstated, concern. The amount of farmland in America has remained relatively constant since the 1940s. If the vice president is concerned about preserving farmland in those areas open space is dwindling, the answer is not more government regulation, but less. The greatest threats to agricultural communities are overregulation and overtaxation, not suburban development.
In many instances, the best thing the federal government can do to enhance environmental protection is get out of the way — and eliminate those policies and programs which subsidize or encourage environmental harm. For instance, if the administration is truly concerned about preserving open space, it would join the call to eliminate the death tax.
If you inherit land in this country, you can be walloped with a one-time tax of up to 55 percent. For many farmers and rural landowners, the only. way to pay this tax is ,to subdivide or sell inherited land for development. The result is less open space, and less habitat for threatened species.
Many Americans are concerned about urban sprawl, but that does not mean that they want the federal government involved. Indeed, recent polling by Kellyanne Fitzpatrick of the Polling Company found that only 8 percent of Americans want the federal government • to take the lead in dealing with this issue. Most Americans believe that local land-use should remain a local concern; insofar as it’s a problem, it is something that state and local governments can handle. There is no need to turn to the EPA.
A similar preference for state and local environmental solutions is found on other environmental issues. By nearly two to one, registered voters believe that state and local governments do a better job pf dealing with environmental concerns than the federal government. Similar majorities want to see state and local governments take the lead in working on issues such as water quality. Given the federal. government’s record of enacting illconceived, overburdensome, and ineffective environmental regulations, it is no wonder.
Returning control over environmental policy to state and local governments is not only good politics, it’s good policy as well. Few environmental problems are truly national in scope. Most are regional or local, leaving state and local officials in a better position to diagnose the problem and develop practical solutions. It is no wonder that all the useful innovation in environmental policy today is percolating up from the state and local level. Federal reform efforts have run aground, yet states are experimenting with audit privilege laws, flexible permitting schemes, property rights protections, and regulatory reform.
Republicans need not cower at the prospect of dealing with environmental concerns for here, as elsewhere, good policy makes for good politics. The very same polls that show strong public support for greater environmental protection show strong support for regulatory reform, protecting private property and decentralization of environmental decision-making. Americans, it seems, recognize that not every., environmental problem’ requires sending more control over their lives and livelihoods to Washington, D.C. If Republicans learn this lesson, they could turn the environment into a winning political issue.