Magazine article Insight on the News

Federal Mandates Crush Localities

Magazine article Insight on the News

Federal Mandates Crush Localities

Article excerpt

To meet EPA pollution regulations, we had to treat a certain percentage of the organic material in our wastewater" says Paula Easley, an official in Anchorage, Alaska, a city of 260,000 people. "But we had a problem. Our wastewater is relatively clean. It didn't have much organic content because of the snow runoff. So how could we treat what we didn't have?"

But her argument meant little to Environmental Protection Agency officials, who insisted on strict compliance with the agency's often-convoluted pollution regulations. If Anchorage didn't comply, it could lose its waiver on a secondary -treatment plant that would cost the city $150 million, or two-thirds of its annual budget.

Fortunately, we found the answer," Easley says. "We got the local fish companies to dump fish guts into the wastewater to pollute it with organic materials. Then we went ahead and cleaned it up, even though it cost us extra money."

This case was, of course, extreme. The day-to-day mandates of the EPA are less dramatic. On occasion they can even seem rational. Americans were cheering, for example, when Congress passed the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and other pieces of legislation meant to improve the environment.

But what those who cheered didn't know - and had better learn quickly - is that such measures are passed and signed in Washington but the cost is picked up locally. Called unfunded mandates, they are Washington's latest racket, perhaps Uncle Sam's most efficient method of oppressing the American people. Washington provides the regulations in a variety of fields but offers little or no cash needed to do the job.

The government calls it No Federal Dollars, or NFD. But for the cities, it might better be termed "In Your Face" government. The burden is placed on the states and the cities, and it's becoming oppressively expensive. In fact, such mandates account for the fastestgrowing portion of the tax-and-spend activity for states and localities.

The directives come not only from the EPA but from the criminal justice system, the Transportation Department, the Education Department, the Labor Department, bureaucracies that deal with the handicapped and virtually every other Washington agency. The much heralded Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, is an unfunded mandate that will cost states and cities - not the federal government - billions.

This is not a petty cash operation. An examination of just seven bills passed by Congress in 1992 showed that states and cities were obligated to spend $1.68 billion of their own money to fulfill federal mandates.

Washington thrives on good intentions but forces others to pay for that warm feeling. Recent estimates indicate that the cost of unfunded mandates soon will exceed $100 billion a year and could skyrocket to $500 billion annually by the turn of the century. Anchorage officials, for example, say that EPA regulations alone will cost the city a total of $428 million by the turn of the century - equal to two years of its current annual budget. But Columbus, Ohio, has done the most comprehensive study on such costs. The study indicates that fulfilling just EPA regulations will take $1.5 billion this decade and will eat up 23 percent of the city's budget by the turn of the century.

All of this, of course, is in addition to the 350 percent increase (in inflation-adjusted dollars!) of the cost of state and local government since 1960. No wonder that government in America - local, state and federal - now costs 42 cents per dollar of the gross domestic product. Under President Harry' duman, it was only 22 cents, or about half as much. That spread has been the difference between solvency and near-bankruptcy, between comfort and struggle.

Even though unfunded mandates, of which there are 174, are fairly new and relatively unknown, most taxpayers are aware of shared mandates for which the federal government pays part of the tab. …

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