Sunbelt tells frostbelt: 'We need aid more than you'

If the squeaking wheel gets the oil, the frostbelt states have received no small amount when it comes to lubricating state and local economies with federal funds. The main reason: efforts by the Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition.

But now, some 90 members of Congress from 17 Southern and Southwestern states have closed ranks to form the new Sunbelt Council. This bipartisan group, says director and former Alabama GOP congressman John Buchanan, will be a "counterforce" to the much larger frostbelt group organized five years ago.

"They have been highly effective in diverting funds," says Mr. Buchanan. "The problem is, that all of it is at the expense of the rest of the country."

The Northern group has been able to influence to its advantage such things as federal grant formulas for housing, urban aid, and energy assistance. This is only fair, its members say, because the region suffered a net loss of $165 billion in federal taxes over spending between 1975 and 1979, while the Sunbelt enjoyed a "balance of payments" surplus of $112 billion from Uncle Sam.

TO make its point that per capital federal spending ought to be higher in its region, the Sunbelt group notes that with 35 percent of the nation's population, they have:

* 45 percent of those below the federal poverty level.

* 47 percent of all food stamp recipients.

* 72 percent of high infant mortality areas.

Per capita income may have been growing faster in the Sunbelt, they say, but it started from a lower base and still is below personal income for Northerners.

"Poor people are much more concentrated in the South," says Robert Clark of the Southern Growth Policies Board. With this in mind, Sunbelt proponents look at "Reaganomics" and voice the same concerns as their neighbors to the North.

Cutting back and folding into block grants social service and health programs could hurt the South as much as the North --if not more so. The proposed 5 percent "cap" on medicated, for example, could affect the elderly, many of whom retire to Southern states. Southern states already have tightened eligibility requirements and cut spending for social welfare programs, more so than the North. They thus see themselves with less room to maneuver in the face of further federal reductions.

The Reagan administration wants to stop paying for waste treatment facilities that contribute to urban growth. This could affect the Sunbelt more than Northern states. Southerners already feel discriminated against by emergency energy assistance grants that go to the frostbelt -- but ignore the fact that hundreds of poor people in the South have died for lack of air conditioning.

Another item of regional controversy is recent temporary legisltion stating that defense contracts need not necessarily go to the lowest bidder, but should be directed areas with high unemployment. Ten Sunbelt states stand to lose more than $12 billion if the so-called "Maybank amendment" is permanently repealed. It is this kind of thing the Sunbelt Council was formed to fight.

Despite increased regional bickering, any imbalances in the way Washington treats North and South have narrowed considerably since the mid-1970s and should continue to narrow no matter how Reagan's budget fares on Capitol Hill.

A recent study by the nonpartisan Government Research Corporation concluded that "the flow of federal funds from the frostbelt to the Sunbelt . . . is slowing." For example, New England now gets $1.09 back for every tax dollar, compared with 96 cents in 1975. The Pacific states, on the other hand, have dropped to the break-even point from a 17-cent advantage. The Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations has reached the same conclusion.

The Community Services Administration likewise reports that the regional gap in per capita federal spending is being equalized, though the South, and especially the West, still have the edge.

"We must avoid the mindset that believes economic growth is a zero-sum game --University of Texas economist Bernard Weinstein told the congressional Joint Economic Committee recently.

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