Block Grant
by Paul Niquette

Internet version of Op-Ed piece in 
The Idaho Statesman April 15, 1992
Copyright 2007 by Paul Niquette. All rights reserved.


et me see if I have this right.  Someone here in Idaho collects money out of our paychecks and mails a check to Washington DC.  Someone there deposits the check then mails a check back to Idaho.  Not the same amount surely.  Probably less -- but not always less.  Anyway, someone here in Idaho deposits that check and then spends the money. "Block Grant," it's called.  That's the easy part.

The money gets spent by someone right here in Idaho.  Fine.  But not for just any old thing.  A block grant is supposed to be used for -- well, for what a block grant is supposed to be used for.  Some `national program' presumably.  Else, why mail checks back and forth like that?  It's OK for Idahoans to collect the money in Idaho and to spend the money in Idaho.  But it's not OK for Idahoans to decide the what-for part.  Or the amount.

The amount of each block grant is decided in Washington DC.  They must use some formula for that.  Depends on the `national program,' of course.  For example, if the block grant supports improvements in transportation safety, they might use a formula based on the state's highway mileage.  With over 60,000 miles of roads, Idaho would get five times as much as New Hampshire, which has about the same population. 

For funding a national anti-smoking program, a formula based on juvenile population would be more appropriate.  Here again, Idaho would do pretty well block grant-wise.  Oh, but so would Utah, which already has fewer teenage smokers per capita than any other state.  Not much of a grant is needed there.  Washington DC ought to write bigger checks to the tobacco states; they have the worst smoking problems.  Idahoans won't feel good about that.

Idahoans might not care much about truck safety, say, and decline a block grant for that national program.  Someone in Washington will feel good about that.  Fewer checks to write.  And more of Idaho's money will be left over for block grants to other states.  Or to reduce the national debt, maybe.  Not clear to me how that part works.

or sure, Idaho would not be permitted to take block grant money intended for a national highway program and spend it on anything else.  Not even for fighting nicotine use by kids.  Seems doubtful that block grants would operate on the `honor system.'  Idahoans will insist that someone in Washington watch over each block grant program in the 49 other states.  Better that, than someone from Idaho checking up on block grants all over the country.  Come to think of it, maybe Idahoans can spend block grant money for that.  I just don't know.

The block grant theory may need a little work.  Self-determination has limits.  The idea is familiar enough, though.  It takes me back twenty-five years and to a landmark speech given by Nelson Rockefeller to the  Economics Club.  His plea to get discretionary funds for the states caught on.  One of the beneficiaries was Ronald Reagan, when he was Governor of the C-word state.  If I remember correctly, it was called `revenue sharing.'  Those words feel good when you say them.  "Block Grant" feels even better.

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