UNFUNDED MANDATES: EXPENSIVE, UNPOPULAR BILL TO ABOLISH THEM IS FIRST SHOT OF CRUSADE Series: THE CONTRACT AND YOU First of an Occasional Series

Article excerpt

In the vacant, crumbling houses along St. Louis streets, Building Commissioner Marty Walsh sees havens for drug deals and venues for rapes. He sees rats, toxic wastes and fire hazards everywhere.

To Walsh, the responsibility of government could not be clearer: Demolish the menacing buildings as swiftly as possible.

But something is fouled up in government's efforts to look out for its citizens, he says. This something is known by a two-word slogan that is as inflammatory to local officials as the combustible buildings in their midst.

Unfunded mandates.

Walsh learned this month that federal regulations will call for extra precautions when razing asbestos-laden buildings - rules unaccompanied by extra money. This is what local officials mean when they complain of unfunded mandates. And this is what the U.S. Senate had in mind on Friday in passing an anti-mandate bill.

The mandate troubling Walsh is a new rule under which St. Louis can no longer hire general construction crews for the demolitions; the city must hire companies certified to work with asbestos along with a trained expert to observe.

As a result, wrecking costs to the city will more than double - to $10,000 for small units. This means that in 1995, the city may raze 40 or 45 condemned buildings rather than 200 - leaving an inventory of hundreds of dangerous buildings.

Federal and state officials explain that strict asbestos rules keep down airborne asbestos fibers that can cause lung disease in workers and nearby residents.

Carol M. Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in an interview about the St. Louis problem that the EPA is looking for less costly asbestos solutions. But she added, "We don't want to inadvertently create another problem."

Building Commissioner Walsh describes himself as an environmentalist. But something is wrong, he says, when mandates keep the city from tackling immediate dangers.

"If we must leave a building standing because of asbestos, does it balance off the rat bites, the sewage problems, the crime and the drug transactions that may occur there - not to mention neighbors' problems getting fire insurance?" Walsh asked.

"We're protecting the environment, but we're killing our neighborhoods."

***** New To The Lexicon

Until recently, the term "unfunded mandates" was nowhere to be found in the lexicon of governing. Not until 1992 did the phrase turn up in the Post-Dispatch.

Still, there was plenty of grumbling in states and cities as the federal government handed down regulations to enforce the Great Society programs from the 1960s and the environmental protection laws that began sprouting in the 1970s.

At first, the federal government provided money for most mandates. But steadily, that money decreased.

Ironically, the problem the new Republican Congress wants to cure became worse during a Republican era as the Reagan administration slashed money for state programs and abolished revenue sharing.

In 1980, cities could generally rely on the federal government to reimburse them for 80 percent of the improvements in wastewater treatment plants. These days, cities lucky enough to qualify seldom get more than 50 percent.

Missouri state Sen. Harry Wiggins, D-Kansas City, a leader in the anti-mandate movement, voices a frequently heard lament: "Over and over, the federal government would pass something that they called new and innovative and give us seed money or no money at all, and then threaten us if we didn't enforce it," said Wiggins, who is chairman of the National Conference of State Legislatures' budget and tax committee.

Yet the system endured. Congress passed laws to protect the common good, and federal agencies interpreted them with piles of regulations.

One costly law was the Americans with Disabilities Act requiring that the handicapped have access to public buildings. …

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.