Even 'new federalism' critics agree reordering is needed

President Reagan's ''new federalism'' idea is getting a mixed reaction across the US this week. But even critics agree changes are needed in state-federal relations.

Today there are thousands of government programs - touching millions of people - that have grown helter-skelter over the past 20 years. There is general agreement that this is a good time to step back, study carefully, and put the federal house in order.

As for the specifics of the Reagan proposal, a senior White House official says: ''These things are negotiable. . . . We realize the potential political problems.''

Among these are: Will the states be able to find ways to pay for the 43 education, community development, transportation, and social service programs they would assume? Will there be ''winners'' and ''losers'' among states, with clear differences between energy-producing states and those with high unemployment and aging industry? Will the ''truly needy'' be protected if welfare is to be wholly administered by state governments and health care by Washington?

''It is obvious to everyone . . . that the budget problems of the federal government will have a significant impact on the programs of state and local government,'' says Sen. David Durenberger (R) of Minnesota, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on intergovernmental relations.

Last month, Vermont Gov. Richard Snelling (R), who chairs the National Governors' Association, said the administration's push to cut and consolidate state aid programs was leading toward ''an economic Bay of Pigs.''

Having seen what the White House calls its ''basic framework'' for reordering federalism, Mr. Snelling is at least willing to listen.

''The President deserves enormous praise,'' he says, ''for putting the subject on the table and for daring to offer the outlines of a plan which the Congress and the people can analyze and shape.''

Over the past two decades, the programmatic and financial ties between Washington and the states have grown enormously. Federal grants have mushroomed from $7 billion to nearly $100 billion, with the number of programs tripling to about 500. As a portion of the federal budget, grants-in-aid have nearly doubled as has the percentage of state and local expenditures financed by the federal government.

Like Gov. Bruce Babbitt (D) of Arizona, many officials have been wondering whether ''Congress ought to be worrying about arms control and defense instead of potholes in the street.''

One of the arguments for a federal response to problems such as welfare is that state and local governments have been unwilling or unable to tackle them. But that appears to be changing.

State legislatures have been reapportioned, civil rights and voter registration efforts have made considerable progress, the disparity between ''rich'' and ''poor'' states has narrowed markedly, and state and local governments (largely because they have had to administer so many federal programs) have become much more sophisticated.

''A largely unnoticed revolution has occurred in state government,'' reports the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, a bipartisan group of federal, state, and local officials. ''The states have been transformed to a remarkable degree. The decades of the 1960s and 1970s witnessed changes in state government unparalleled since the post-Reconstruction period a century ago, generally in the direction advocated by reformers for 50 years.''

At the same time, commission assistant director David Walker told a congressional committee last spring, federal-state-local relations have become ''more entangled, more enervating, and more undermining of the system's overall functional effectiveness over the past two decades.''

The commission, whose staff analysis and recommendations are highly respected , has recently suggested consolidating, ''decongesting,'' and reordering government programs along the same lines as President Reagan. A major difference is the commission recommendation that Washington should take over all welfare programs.

Whether or not this happens may depend largely on the success of the President's economic program.

''I want to point out to those who believe that this program must be given a chance to work that in the meantime monumental damage is being done to the poor in our cities,'' says US Conference of Mayors President Helen Boosalis, a Democrat from Lincoln, Neb.

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