In Kansas, they're wary of Reagan's 'new federalism'

Reaganomics. The 'new federalism.' Leaders in America's heartland are watching and wondering how it all will work out.

Indeed, leaders in this Plains state take some comfort in the fact that Congress has welcomed neither the proposed fiscal 1983 budget nor new federalism with open arms.

Kansas Gov. John Carlin (D), who has consistently supported the idea of federalism as a partnership, is concerned that the administration, pressed as it is by budget troubles, is more inclined toward a wholesale abdication, rather than a sharing, of its responsibilities. The result, he says, could lead to inequities in state public assistance payments which could prompt recipients to move and overburden those states with more generous benefits. Some states might drop public assistance programs altogether, penalizing those who don't, he says.

''If Washington is just passing the buck and sending the problems from one levels to another, we haven't accomplished anything,'' he said in an interview in his office here just before taking off for the National Governors' Association meeting in Washington.

''I think people need to learn a little something from history and to understand the reason state and local governments didn't accept responsibilities in certain areas (in the first place). . . . I'm willing to be a partner, but I'm not going to blindly follow something that just starts the cycle all over again.''

Topeka Mayor Bill McCormick, working hard at a desk full of papers in the municipal building a few blocks away, is less specific on the dangers of new federalism as proposed, but equally dubious. Like many mayors, he is concerned that state government may prove less generous and fair in dealing with the cities than Washington has.

''At this point I'm a little bit skeptical,'' he says. ''I'm a Republican, but I just wonder if this is really the answer.''

For traditionally conservative Kansas, which happens to have a lower unemployment rate and higher per capita income level than the nation's average, both the recommended fiscal 1983 budget cuts and the proposed swap and turn-back of many domestic programs are apt to send the state searching for new money to make up the difference. An analysis by the state's budget office indicates that if the proposed federal cuts should pass, Kansas would lose another $58 million over the 12 months of its proposed $3 billion annual budget. ''The '83 recommendations make the '82 cuts look small,'' says Governor Carlin. The bulk of the new proposed cuts, some $40 million, would hit state social services such as welfare, according to J. Charles Stevenson of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. ''But we won't lose $40 million because none of us think the entire package will pass in Washington.''

If Kansas hands its medicaid program to Washington and takes on the cost of the food-stamp and Aid to Families with Dependent Children programs and a variety of other categorical programs as proposed by the Reagan administration, the state would still have to come up with an additional $225 million to $300 million a year by 1991. That's when the special federal trust fund proposed in the President's new federalism plan is due to expire.

These are days when tax increases are especially difficult to vote in. Governor Carlin has for several years been trying to get the Legislature to pass some sort of severance tax on oil and gas in the state. And Mayor McCormick notes that Topeka will be out more than $1 million a year it has usually received from the just discontinued county tax on intangible property. One Kansas budget expert says he doesn't think the administration has yet carefully thought through how states will manage to carry on their added duties once the federal trust fund ends.

Another difficulty Governor Carlin sees in the proposed federal-state welfare swap is the possibility that medicaid standards might decline under the federal government. He's concerned that they might drop to the point where Kansas medicaid recipients would fare more poorly than they have under the state.

''It's fine if they want to pick up all the costs, but we could end up worse off than before,'' says the governor.

In his view the federal hand-over of the reins on other programs should not necessarily mean abandonment of all interest and leadership. He argues, for instance, that there is a legitimate national interest in seeing that American youngsters get a strong educational start. He draws a parallel to the late 1950s , when concern over Soviet scientific and space advances prompted the federal government to take a new leadership role in education.

Above all, however, Governor Carlin who was the first Democrat to serve as speaker of the Kansas House in 64 years, says he welcomes the Reagan administration's offer to begin a constructive dialogue on federalism.

''I want to work with the President in a positive way,'' he says. ''We've got to go program by program. . . . We need a very open, thorough discussion before we charge ahead.''

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