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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Delayed Conversation

The feds don’t spend much time hashing out mutual problems with states and localities. It’s time they started.

What do you call it when eight federal officials and eight state and local leaders convene voluntarily to discuss intergovernmental fiscal affairs? Well, if you’ve watched the downward trajectory that has characterized intergovernmentalism in Washington over the past decade or so, you might call it a minor miracle.

But last month, that’s just what happened. A 16-member panel whose leaders included Danny Werfel, acting director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, and Martin Benison, the Massachusetts state controller, sat down to develop plans for a new standing group that will focus on how the three levels of government might work more rationally through the broad range of intergovernmental fiscal issues that leave state and local officials alternatively exasperated, confused and, on some days, entertaining notions of open rebellion.

The effort, which is being called the “Partnership for Intergovernmental Management and Accountability,” is being jointly sponsored by the Association of Government Accountants and the Chief Financial Officers Council, a group made up of the top fiscal officials from the 24 largest federal agencies.

The partnership has a wide range of issues and activities it might tackle, from serving as a forum for sharing best practices in fiscal management to working through proposed rules and regulations for specific federal grants and transfer programs.

The partnership emerged out of what might seem an unlikely issue: the Bush administration’s concern about “improper payments” that the feds might have made to states and localities. Relmond Van Daniker, the executive director of the Association of Government Accountants, didn’t think the prospect of federal liens against states and localities due to perceived overpayments was a very practical investment of federal time or energy. “That just wasn’t going to work,” says Van Daniker. “What we really need is to get states, locals and feds talking to one another again.”

The partnership does have one important thing going for it: Those who are represented by AGA and the CFO Council clearly are getting tired of all the confusion and conflict when it comes to intergovernmental fiscal affairs. This potentially powerful source of grassroots and high-level discontent just might hold the new partnership together.

-Jonathan Walters, Governing.com

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