Justin Owen

Editor's Note: This piece was co-authored by Tarren Bragdon.

There’s no doubt the American economy is in a world of hurt. Until last month, we had failed to drop below an eight percent unemployment rate since February 2009, we have a record $16 trillion (and growing) national debt, and we have an incontinent federal government that is making matters worse by the hour.

So how do we get out of this mess? While elections matter, even they have failed to deliver freedom and prosperity. President Obama was re-elected handily despite his abysmal track record. More than half of America has doubled down on failure.

The real path to prosperity lies in Tennessee. And Oklahoma, and Florida, and every other sovereign state in the nation.

State-led policies to rejuvenate our economy exist aplenty. And even better than a top down, one-size-fits-all Washington approach, the states can serve as “laboratories of democracy” and tailor policies toward their respective geographic, demographic, and economic composition.

What works in one southern state with an agrarian economy will look quite different than what is best for a Rust Belt industrial state, or a northeastern financial state. Further, states can offer a test run of ideas, and others can emulate what works and avoid what doesn’t. If a policy fails, it can be dumped on the ash heap of history rather than become entrenched in our national fabric, a la the various entitlement programs that are advancing toward bankruptcy at the speed of light and destined to swallow up state budgets en route.

State leaders have a unique ability and growing desire to wrestle control back from Washington on a range of issues. The recent Supreme Court ruling on President Obama’s signature healthcare law, while bad overall, provides one such example. The ruling puts states firmly in the driver’s seat over whether to expand a Medicaid system that we can already ill afford.

Several governors have dug in their heels to protect their taxpayers as well as the millions of potential enrollees who will inevitably be purged from the program when reality beckons the unsustainable model. Look no further than Tennessee just seven years ago, when former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen was forced to remove more than 170,000 adults from a budget-busting TennCare Medicaid program. Even that was not enough, and by the end of his second term, Bredesen had removed 350,000 people from the program. Many of these patients had become so dependent on the system that they were blindsided and left in worse shape than when they were enrolled.

Rather than repeat this painful history on a cataclysmic scale, several states are considering reforms that would actually fix Medicaid. The best approach comes from Florida and has been copied by other states. Florida’s Medicaid reform uses choice, competition, personalized plans, and real accountability to create a Medicaid program that is pro-patient and pro-taxpayer. Patients are happier and healthier and at some of the lowest per person costs in the country.

States are also taking control over other issues that Washington has wrecked, such as energy policy. While the Environmental Protection Agency is on a crusade to cripple America’s energy independence, states are pushing back. There are currently more than a dozen lawsuits between the state of Texas and the EPA resulting from the agency’s brazen disregard for the state’s authority to regulate its own energy and environmental affairs.

Education reform is another issue that has gained legs in the states after the federal government’s decades long “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Dozens of states have recently welcomed charter schools or bolstered their existing charter laws, and the recent election brought about two more significant victories for charter school advocates in Georgia and Washington. More and more states are enacting large-scale school choice programs to empower parents, not bureaucrats or politicians, to choose the schools that are best for their kids.

Indiana just enacted the nation’s largest school choice program, which could eventually give more than half the state’s families educational freedom. Louisiana has followed suit with a large school choice program of its own, and proposals in other states like Tennessee are on the horizon.

Despite the gridlock that was just returned to Washington, the looming political battle in this country will not be Republican versus Democrat. It will be the states versus the federal government. It will be real innovation and true reform versus the status quo that has failed us time and again.

State leaders must seize the opportunity—and responsibility—to push back against a reckless federal government hell bent on national destruction. States possess the ingenuity, capacity, and accountability necessary for long-term answers, three aspects you’ll find conspicuously absent inside the Beltway. It’s time for us to put our stock in the states, returning power to where it can be wielded effectively and where it rightfully belongs.


Justin Owen

Justin Owen is the president and chief executive officer of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, an independent, nonprofit, and nonpartisan research organization dedicated to providing concerned citizens, the media, and public leaders with expert empirical research and timely free market policy solutions to public policy issues in Tennessee. He has helped usher in comprehensive tort reform, assisted in the repeal of collective bargaining by teachers’ unions, and worked to end Tennessee’s death tax.