US Local Governments Fight Back Against Costly Federal Regulations

LOCAL governments are launching a revolt against Washington.

The source of their pique: ``unfunded federal mandates'' - programs Uncle Sam imposes on city and county governments without earmarking money to carry them out.

Local officials charge that federal requirements governing everything from the cleanup of underground storage tanks to the disposal of solid waste are costing them billions of dollars a year at a time of tight budgets.

They portray themselves as helplessly caught in a tuna net of federal rulemaking.

A new study released Oct. 26 by the US Conference of Mayors, for instance, estimates that federal mandates will cost cities $6.5 billion in 1993. Over the next five years, it says, the price tag will climb to $54 billion as local governments are forced to build sewer systems to comply with the Clean Water Act, design landfills to meet waste-disposal laws, and fulfill other federal mandates.

``We want to make it clear we have no quarrel with the intentions of the laws to provide clean water or handicapped accessibility or proper disposal of toxic waste,'' says Jerry Abramson, mayor of Louisville, Ky., and president of the US Conference of Mayors. ``But when the good intentions of these laws are put into the hands of the bureaucrats who have no idea or concern about what their mandates are going to cost, you have a horror story.'' A longstanding problem

Local officials, of course, have longed chafed at the strictures sent down from Washington. But they haven't had much luck in doing away with them. This year, officials are more hopeful.

The US Conference of Mayors, National Association of Counties (NACo), National League of Cities, and International City/ County Management Association kicked off a campaign Oct. 26 to draw public attention to the problem. Their real target, though, is Congress and the White House, which mint the rules.

In July, President Clinton promised a NACo conference that he wouldn't load any more unfunded mandates on local governments. At least 20 bills have been introduced in Congress to see if lawmakers on Capitol Hill are feeling as benevolent.

One of the most sweeping, by Rep. Gary Condit (D) of California, would require Congress to pay the costs incurred by state and local governments in complying with any future federal statutes and regulations. It would do nothing about rules already on the books. A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate by Dirk Kempthorne (R) of Idaho.

``Local jurisdictions are being financially suffocated by the ongoing stream of unfunded mandates,'' Mr. Condit says.

He estimates the city of Chicago spent $160 million to comply with federal mandates last year. Ohio has calculated it will cost almost $3 billion to meet federal and state environmental rules between 1992 and 2001. In Merced, Calif., city officials are spending more than $152 million annually to meet federal requirements, Condit says. Less radical approaches

Still, even some who sympathize with the cities' plight think the Condit-Kempthorne approach goes too far to be acceptable to Congress. Sen. Paul Coverdell (R) of Georgia is pushing a measure that would require a two-thirds congressional vote before any federal regulation is passed that doesn't include funding to cover the cost of local implementation. The bill also stipulates that any legislation not fully funded have a ``compelling national interest.''

Others measures would simply require that an analysis be done of the fiscal impact of a mandate before it is adopted.

Getting Congress to sign off on any of these measures won't be easy. It would mean, after all, asking lawmakers to limit their own power to pass regulations.

As things stand now, acknowledges Mike Brown, spokesman for the US Conference of Mayors, Congress ``can pass laws that sound great, take credit, and not have to pay for them.'' Still, he believes there is ``as good a shot as ever'' this year in seeing some changes come about.

Whether or not they do, local officials continue to trumpet their tale of woe to whomever will listen. ``Mandates are really hidden taxes,'' says Barbara Todd, NACo president. ``They are imposed on local governments, who have no choice but to pass the costs onto their constituents.''

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