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White House vs. Republican Governors

NPR’s Living on Earth

July 13, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Believing that business can regulate itself, Michigan’s Governor, John Engler, has transformed state government. Regulatory staffs have been slashed. A new law allows factories to inspect themselves. Developers are now freer than ever to subdivide open land.

Lately, though, the governor’s authority has come under challenge from an unexpected quarter: the Clinton Administration. Earlier this year, the EPA told the governor it is so concerned about the state’s unwillingness to enforce environmental laws that the agency may bring them under Federal control.

This is no idle threat. In January, the E.P.A. took over Pennsylvania’s clean water program after years of neglect by the state and its Republican governor, Tom Ridge. The Administration also is battling with Governor George Allen in Virginia, and in Texas, Governor George Bush. The face off over the environment resembles the contest of wills more than 30 years ago when Deep South states defied U.S. civil rights laws and invited Federal intervention.

At the core of the dispute are competing visions of government. It is an article of faith within the conservative wing of the Republican Party that government has no business in overseeing business. The Clinton Administration, in contrast, has come to take seriously the polls and now more firmly believes environmental laws must be enforced.

Given such deep ideological differences, it’s not difficult to view the struggle between Washington and these governors as a prelude to the next presidential election. Engler, Ridge, Allen, and Bush are all rising stars of their party.

Politically, the momentum now seems to lie with the White House. Vice President Al Gore framed the environmental message that helped President Clinton win two terms, and clearly will use the issue to advance his own run for the presidency.

In contrast, Republicans who tried to dismember environmental protections in the last Congress were hurt at the polls.

Now there is evidence that the public’s revulsion is spreading to state leaders. In May, a survey in Michigan found that half of those polled viewed Mr. Engler’s environmental record negatively, a sharp reversal from a year ago.

Voters in Michigan are sending an unmistakable message. Governor Engler has misjudged their concern about the environment and it may cost him a third term in office. If that occurs, the state’s long and dismal period of neglect for natural resources will have come to an end. Given Mr. Engler’s standing in the national Republican Party, the same may be true for the nation.

Keith Schneider, an environmental writer, is executive director of the

Michigan Land Use Institute in Benzonia.

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