Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Washington Calls Shots, but We Pay Bill

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Washington Calls Shots, but We Pay Bill

Article excerpt

Under the revenue-sharing program of the 1970s, the federal government played the role of sugar daddy to state and local governments. More recently, it has been a stern parent, holding its purse strings tightly while requiring states to tackle a growing list of expensive problems.

Whether the goal is broader Medicaid coverage or cleaner water, the process has been the same: Congress sets the rules, states and cities pick up the tab.

Such mandates represent a fundamental shift in philosophy.

In the revenue-sharing era, money was raised at the national level, where the main tax is the progressive income tax. Spending decisions were made at the local level, where presumably elected officials were most closely in touch with their communities' needs.

In the new era of fend-for-yourself federalism, the decisions are made in Washington, but the money must be raised locally, by government entities that rely heavily on regressive sales and income taxes.

Washington's decisions don't always make sense to local officials, either. Thomas DiLorenzo, an economics professor at Loyola College in Baltimore, likes to tell the story of Anchorage, Alaska, and its sewage treatment plant.

A 1991 federal law required cities to remove 30 percent of the organic waste from sewage. The effluent coming into Anchorage's treatment plant was already low in organic matter; cleaning it up by a further 30 percent would have required an investment of $135 million. But the Environmental Protection Agency was unyielding: The water must be 30 percent cleaner when it went out than when it came in.

City officials came up with an innovative solution: They asked two fish-processing plants to dump 5,000 pounds of fish parts into the sewer system. Anchorage removed the waste, and presto, it now met the 30 percent rule.

Here's another story DiLorenzo has gathered: Columbus, Ohio, says it spends $24,000 a year to test for 43 pesticides that never occur in its drinking water. One is used only by pineapple growers.

These are classic government waste stories, reminiscent of the Pentagon spending scandals of a few years ago. …

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