Vt. officials: We're in historic states right era

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BENNINGTON — The enduring power struggle between the federal and state governments is reaching yet another fever pitch, according to two top Vermont officials, but they said the Constitution remains as relevant as ever, reflecting the foresight of the founding generation after more than two centuries.

Attorney General T.J. Donovan and Secretary of State Jim Condos spoke at Bennington College on the tug-of-war between the federal government and the states, which predates the Constitution in 1789 and was the overarching issue during the convention in Philadelphia that produced the nation's governing document.

During a public forum Thursday at the college's Center for the Advancement of Public Action, Donovan referred several times to the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which "delegates to the states" those power not specifically granted the federal government. Americans have been defining the exact meaning of that provision ever since, he said.

"If you look at it historically, we are having in this country right now a whole new debate on federalism, that interaction, that tension between the federal government and states' rights," Donovan told an audience of students, faculty members and area residents.

"All these great conflicts we have had in the history of our country have been about states' rights," he said.

That includes, Donovan said, the conflicts over slavery that led to the Civil War and the continuing struggles to ensure the rights of minorities.

Today, he and Condos said, issues producing rifts between some states and the federal government include voter registration and voter fraud; the Trump administration's attempts to curtail or ban travel from some countries or by some groups; a swirl of issues surrounding immigration law and enforcement, and whether the federal government should enforce pollution regulations that prevent one state from affecting the environment in other states with stricter policies.

Currently, Condos said, his office is fighting demands from a federal commission looking into alleged voter fraud for detailed information on voters. The requested data, Condos said, included Social Security and license numbers and email addresses, which is being sought from every secretary of state.

"They wanted literally everything," he said, adding that he and most other office-holders in Vermont believe the request went too far and should be challenged.

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Asked by a student what a state can do when officials disagree with the federal government, he said that in this case, "We are refusing to give the information to them."

In dealing with many similar issues, the Secretary of State said he relies on the Attorney General's office to back up any challenge of federal policy or regulation — in court, if that is required.

"He protects my backside," Condos said of Donovan.

Assistance from Congressional office-holders in Vermont and elsewhere also is typically sought or offered, the officials said.

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Condos said Vermont has been one of the most progressive states in expanding access to voter registration, while some other states have enacted laws that make it more difficult for certain groups — the poor, minorities, young people — to register to vote. Those laws are seen as either a check on voter fraud or voter suppression, he said, but Condos believes numerous studies have shown fraud to be only a minor problem across the country.

The officials said most of the current disputes involve so-called blue, or Democratic-dominated states like Vermont, resisting efforts pushed by a Republican-dominated Congress and a Republican administration since Donald Trump took office.

That is a different scenario from what prevailed for the past 40 to 50 years, Donovan said, when most often the issues were integration or the rights of minorities being threatened by state laws or the actions of political leaders in those states.

More recently, he said, the federal government is taking the opposite approach on many issues, and so-called red, or Republican-controlled state governments, have taken the federal government to court over the provisions of the care act passed under the Obama administration and several other issues.

But the AG said not all issue-related coalitions involve red vs blue states; it depends on the issue and the current governments in individual states.

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Donovan added that he is careful "not to demonize" federal departments or employees, "who have a job to do" and have been given their marching orders from Washington. Federal departments also continually partner with his office, he said, in dealing with a range of problems and issues, not only those over which Vermont disagrees with federal policies.

As with all conflicts with a federal entity, the officials said, the attorney general must determine whether it is better to lobby through state and federal lawmakers for a change in policy in Washington, join a coalition of like-minded states to lobby or take the federal government to court, or whether it is worth a legal challenge with Vermont filing suit on its own.

The officials also agreed that, not matter what decision they make on such issues, they are going to hear criticism from some Vermonters. They said the key is in determining what is really in the best interests of the people, not what is politically expedient.

Condos advised any students who might consider running for political office to always "keep in mind that you can never please everybody all the time."

There will be criticism, Donovan said, but office-holders should listen to it and respond with civility, because "that can also be helpful in how to do the job."

Commenting on the amount of time states' rights issues requires from his office, Donovan said "it's like drinking from a fire hose, it's constant."

With the Trump administration in power, he said, "we are dealing with one big civics lesson right now. And in a way that's a good thing."

He added that the Constitution, with its deliberate checks and balances throughout, "is a living, breathing document that is really showing its strength in 2017."

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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