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.

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.

With President Reagan not likely to fill any of these choice patronage slots, it is unclear how the governor co-chairmen can unilaterally decide which projects might continue with remaining funds. "This will have the effect of preventing new spending, even if we had the money," laments the staff director of one of the larger regional commissions.

Most, if not all, of the apparently doomed agencies have, according to spokesmen, substantially committed their full fiscal 1982 appropriations and will face contract cancellations as well as early staff dismissals.

The Appalachian commission, for example, has a staff of 115, and the eight smaller commissions have a combined state and federally funded payroll of just over 150.

Some of these agencies' activities -- such as tourism promotion, industrial development, and energy resource coordination -- seem almost sure to be shifted elsewhere, either through private enterprise or other government agencies.

Governors in most of the regions already are discussing means for continuing some commission activities, although perhaps scaled down and redirected, through state compacts and cooperative agreements.

"Having worked closely in developing policies and programs for the mutual benefit of the region as well as individual states, I expect the New England governors will continue their joint effort, even without the commission," says J. Joseph Grandsmaison, the New England commission's former co-chairman.

Despite wide differences both in emphasis and scope of activity, ranging from reclamation of arid lands in the Southwest to development of seafood industrial parks along the South Atlantic coast, all commissions have been heavily into promoting tourism.

Several agencies have focused attention on expanding overseas markets for their regions' products.

Some of the commissions, most notably the Appalachian and Ozark divisions, spearheaded construction of vocational schools.

Since its inception in 1965, the Appalachian commission has helped create more than 500 of these job-training facilities within its region.

Appalachian governors, concerned over the plight of their region's $120 million fiscal 1981 program in the face of the Reagan cutback proposals, met with the President last month but apparently to no avail.

The regional program, they say, "exemplifies the kind of federal-state-local cooperation President Reagan is seeking." The program in Appalachia, as they view it, is making "substantial and visible progress" and "reversing decades of neglect."

Congress now has until late spring to move on Reagan's budget-slimming recommendations for fiscal 1981. If the lawmakers fail to act, the funding stands as appropriated. The regional commissions

Appalachian Regional Commission: portions of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, plus all of West Virginia.

Coastal plains Regional Commission: eastern portions of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.

Four Corners Regional Commission: portions of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.

New England Regional Commission: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Old West Regional Commission: Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

Ozark Regional Commission: Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, and much of Texas.

Pacific Northwest Regional Commission: Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

Southwest Border Regional Commission: counties along the Mexican border in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas.

Upper Great Lakes Regional commission: northern counties of Michigan, Minne sota, and Wisconsin.

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