US regional commissions: a 'Great Society' idea that Reagan budget-cutters want soon forgotten
Regional commissions, one of the more innovative creations of "the Great Society" push of the mid-1960s, are in their final months. President Reagan proposes to cut off all funding for the nine federal-state planning and economic development agencies beyond next Sept. 30 -- the end of the current fiscal year.Skip to next paragraph
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And if the nation's new Chief Executive has his way, funding authorizations for the last half of fiscal 1981 will be virtually eliminated as well.
Reagan-proposed budget trims, sent to Congress on March 10, all but assure a speedy demise of the special commissions whose varying activities and jurisdictions embrace parts or all of 43 states.
Since 1965, the federal government has supplied nearly $5.2 billion to run the commissions -- $4.5 billion for Appalachia and close to $650 million combined for the other regions.
While disappointed over the presidential decision and hopeful most of the money previously appropriated for fiscal 1981 will be forthcoming, governors of the states involved and officials of the regional commissions appear all but resigned to the demise of the agencies.
With the possible exception of the Appalachian Regional Commission, which serves West Virginia and portions of 12 other states from New York to the Gulf of Mexico, prospects for continuing this federal aid partnership -- even on a scaled-down basis -- seem slim.
The Appalachian commission, the first and by far the largest of the regional planning and development agencies, has hundreds of miles of highways and 706 other projects under construction or on the drawing boards. These would be jeopardized if Congress went along with Reagan's fiscal 1981 budget chopping.
Specifically, the President's recommendations include:
* Cutting all but about $4.7 million from the $124.7 million appropriated for nonhighway Appalachian commission projects, and shifting all unexpended Appalachian highway money to the Federal Highway Administration.
* Reducing fiscal 1981 funding for the other eight regional commissions by $ 21 million from $43.8 million which has been authorized.
* Halting funds for all nine commissions in fiscal 1982.
Before leaving office in January, former President Jimmy Carter submitted a budget for fiscal 1982 which would have cut all funding for eight of the agencies, while recommending that $343 million be given to the Appalachian commission.
Although similar in purpose, no two of the commissions are involved in the same programs, and they vary widely in both scope and effectiveness.
Some agencies, like the New England Regional Commission, have been under fire over the years for striking out in too many directions, with little to show in positive results. Some have had the image of being political "pork barrels."
Critics of the nine commissions say the approach has not worked well, with efforts in many instances directed more toward dealing with problems on an individual state rather than regionwide basis. Others maintain that too much time and attention has been directed toward things that might better be handled by other public and private agencies.
From the outset, each of these planning agencies has been a two-headed operation -- with one co-chairman appointed by the White House and the other rotated among the governors of the member states. In this way the federal government has had a voice equal to the states in deciding which policies and programs are undertaken.
This arrangement, however, could pose a problem in the expected phasing out of the commissions, since the co-chairmen appointed by Carter have been dismissed.