Chase Martin is president of August Strategy Group. He is a member of the Maine State Bar and lives in Texas. Martin organized and led nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits to influence public policy relating to healthcare, energy, and telecommunications in the United States (state and federal), Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
Martin also served as the senior legal and policy advisor to the commissioner for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, where he worked on strengthening program integrity and fighting fraud in Medicaid and other government welfare programs. He recently spoke with senior editor Ray Nothstine.
Ray Nothstine: Why do you think federalism is so essential to self-government? How might you explain that to an American who doesn’t read much or may not be interested in some of these issues? They may even be weaponized against the thought of federalism because they believe more entrenched power is good and they see saviors in Washington.
Chase Martin: At the end of the day, federalism is about the people that are closer to you and your community. When you’re participating in a state election, you’re participating in a local election. You’re electing people that you can see, you can impact, you can have conversations with, and you can have relationships with. The principle of federalism pushes back against this unknown entity that’s just exhibiting power over you.
DC is run by a bunch of 25-year-olds using Excel spreadsheets and you’re just a number to them. They’re mostly trying to keep everyday Tuesday. What I mean by that is they don’t want any change. They don’t want to come in Wednesday and have their lunch at 12:15 instead of 11:30. They want to have everything go the same way. Anytime a state says, you know what, we want to be a little bit self-determinant, we want to do our thing, we want to listen to the people in our state and respond to their needs, that causes havoc in Washington, DC, and ultimately, it’s bad for states because then the feds are going to start making threats.
Sometimes we think of federalism as one theory among many or maybe even overly complex, but what are just a few ways it can help people who might be struggling? What are some policy objectives or achievements that we can get out of standing up for the principles of our founding and decentralizing power to states and localities? Are there policy achievements or ways the average citizens can see their lives improve?
There are a lot of ways for people to improve their lives. Almost none of them involve the utilization of the federal government or dependency. There’s a lot of power given to states in the Constitution, in the Bill of Rights, and just the rules and regulations at the federal level. States have a lot of decision-making authority in how they want to run their programs.
When we’re thinking about federalism, what we’re thinking about is how do we get this money from DC, how does our state receive back our federal taxpayer dollars that we’re paying to improve the lives of people here? A lot of the times it’s going to be, let’s say in Missouri, we believe that people should have to work to receive SNAP or Medicaid or those types of benefits.
For people that don’t follow the acronyms, SNAP is food stamps, and Medicaid is healthcare at the state level. You can implement more self-determination in those programs. There’s a lot of wiggle room in work requirements, eligibility, and the way that those things are run. To boil it down for the average person that’s just thinking, “Okay, how does this impact me? Why does this matter?”
Well, it matters every day when you’re in the grocery store, and you’re seeing the person drive up in their brand-new truck, and they’re putting all their groceries on an EBT card. States can take steps to put in better fraud and waste protections, which has a direct impact on taxpayers and some accountability for participants of those programs.
You worked in the Governor Paul LePage administration in Maine and had some opportunities to deal with the federal government. You mentioned SNAP and LePage made some tremendous strides in reforming welfare programs in that state. One simple requirement was a picture ID to receive benefits. Something Maine was allowed to do, but for which the governor received aggressive pushback from bureaucrats under President Obama. Can you talk to us a little bit about this saga? What occurred?
Martin: Sure. The whole saga of the photos on EBT cards started with a drug bust. In Maine, state agencies work closely together. I was at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services overseeing the welfare benefits programs and the fraud department. Our fraud department worked closely with law enforcement officials because they wanted to know specifics about those receiving benefits in the criminal justice system. Are they being arrested? What’s going on? Do we pause benefits, or start them?
There’s a relationship there. The cops had done a drug bust where they found a stack of EBT cards. The drug dealer said, “Well, sometimes I just accept these EBT cards for 50 cents on the dollar of their value.” There’s no picture. It’s just a number so these drug dealers can just go in and swipe it. They can swipe multiple cards if they feel like it, and they just say, “Oh, these are all mine.”
A lot of the time the PIN is just a four-digit number written in Sharpie on the card. There is no security there. Governor LePage was a visionary here. He said, “Let’s put photos on those EBT cards so the cashier can see that something’s not right and know that this person is not supposed to be receiving these benefits.”
We looked at the rules and the federal government and the SNAP program is run by the Department of Agriculture, and more specifically by a sub-agency of USDA called Food Nutrition Services. They publish the rules of the program. They put those rules out that said states have an option of putting a photograph on the EBT card.
We said, “Great, let’s start doing it.” The governor himself told us to implement photo protections as soon as possible. It took us a while, but once we had it going, we did a test program first, because, with all these things, you must do a pilot program. We initiated a pilot project in Bangor, Maine, and started putting photos on EBT cards. We had to go out and get a printer and make sure we were doing everything correctly.
The Obama administration at the time found out about it and said, “We’re going to send up two officials from our regional office to go see what you’re doing and how it might impact people.”
They sent these two people up and Governor LePage decided to draw a line. He said, “This is my state. I’m the executive. I’m going to run the show here.”
When those two people were sent up, Governor LePage said, “Unless you let me have my people follow you around all day and videotape you, I’m going to shut down the whole Bangor Center because I don’t have to let you in anywhere. You don’t run the state of Maine, I do.”
How much more should we be seeing state and local officials push back against federal overreach? It seems to me a lot of times when you push back bureaucrats are prone to slink away. Do you have any sort of insight or just advice for a state or local lawmaker?
Martin: That’s one of the reasons I founded August Strategy Group. As a firm we wanted to go equip policymakers across the country with the tools to push back against the federal government and have their backs when needed. Sometimes, all they need to know is that you are allowed to push back. You can fight back. Just because they send you a letter threatening you does not mean you have to do what this unelected bureaucrat in Washington, DC, wants you to do.
At the end of the day, lawmakers should know that they have the power to fight back.
There’s a lot of opportunity to utilize lawmaking power and it helps if you have an attorney general on your side in your state. There are so many steps that the federal government must do to force you to do something or be able to penalize your state. Federal agencies or bureaucrats just can’t start taking money away from you like they often threaten. They can’t do that. That’s not the way the policy programs work. At the end of the day, lawmakers should know that they have the power to fight back.
What signs can you point to that might spark some optimism when it comes to revitalizing a culture of self-government? Culture drives so much of politics, but I wanted to just see if you had some areas where you were optimistic about now.
Martin: Well, I think the most optimism I see are the wins that attorneys general are getting in the federal courts against the current Biden administration, which is trying to flex its muscles using the Department of Justice as a weapon around elections and many other issues that states are trying to take the lead on.
The wins experienced in the Fifth Circuit and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. There have been some substantial wins in Florida and Texas, and huge wins out of Louisiana, showing that states can be self-determinant. They have the power to make changes and run their communities, and their states, and it’s heartening to see that this is happening.