Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Washington Says: Just Do It

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Washington Says: Just Do It

Article excerpt

So many of the arguments over the costs and benefits of federal laws and regulations usually center on private businesses. Yet, increasingly, state and local governments are giving voice to many of the same complaints. Thus, we enter into the debate over what is usually referred to as "unfunded mandates" or the "cumulative burden" on states and municipal governments.

You may not have marked your calendar yet, but Oct. 27 has now been designated National Unfunded Mandates Day, by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. This new civil festival does not roll easily off the tongue. Still, the concept is a simple one. The federal government, in the form of laws passed by Congress and signed by the president, mandates new and more costly programs for lower levels of government, without any corresponding increase in funding. Given the prevalence of this approach, with respect to private business, it may not be surprising to many citizens that this occurs. But the sheer magnitude of the financial impacts to state and local governments, as well as to their taxpaying citizens, ought to give everyone pause.

In 1991, the city of Columbus, Ohio, undertook what became a landmark study of the cumulative costs of regulatory compliance, as it related to environmental legislation alone. The city identified 22 different federal and state mandates implemented in each of the three previous years. While noting that federal and state funding was decreasing, the city concluded that over the next 10 years its costs to comply with these mandates would amount to $1,088,484,880 in 1991 dollars. This figure yielded a cost of $850 per household per year. Keep in mind that Columbus's total city budget for 1991 was $591 million. Of course, the figures rise with any uptick in the rate of inflation.

And the beat goes on. According to a Midland, Mich., think tank, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 244 bills containing mandates were proposed in the 102nd Congress, which ended in December 1992. The center also calculated that for 1993, $95.3 million, or 30 percent of Michigan's revenue growth, would be consumed by Medicaid mandates. These same mandates were also projected to grow at an annual rate of 49.1 percent through 1995 while Michigan's general fund lagged behind at 5.5 percent.

The spectacle of state after state, city after city, reeling from the torrent of federal mandates is quite numbing. While the EPA is a convenient whipping boy, the root of the problem is a string of laws passed independently under the auspices of a sprawling congressional committee system, with little regard for the cumulative impact on lower levels of government. "Basically it is a matter of buck-passing," says Knoxville, Tenn., Mayor Victor Ashe.

There seems to be no priority or hierarchy among all the various and sundry mandates emanating from the Congress, the courts and the federal regulatory agencies. …

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