US Cities Bang on Federal Doors

Local officials pound at unfunded federal mandates, especially costly environmental laws

IT doesn't have quite the ring of ``taxation without representation,'' but the bureaucratic mouthful ``unfunded federal mandates'' has become the battle cry for the nation's cities and towns. Around the country this week, local officials are banging on the doors of lawmakers and congressional hopefuls in search of relief.

What thousands of mayors and other local officials are rebelling against is the cumulative impact of dozens of federal regulations that come with good intentions but a huge price tag and no extra money to pay for them.

Among these are the Americans with Disabilities Act (which impacts local transit and buildings) and the Fair Labor Standards Act. But according to the United States Conference of Mayors, 8 out of 10 of the most burdensome mandates are for environmental protection and cleanup.

Some examples: The cost of closing the city landfill in Fresno, Calif., will jump from about $12 million to as much as $60 million because of ``superfund'' legislation mandating toxic site cleanup.

Columbus, Ohio, figures that by 1996, compliance with federal environmental laws will consume 23 percent of its budget. Anchorage, Alaska, estimates that during the 1990s laws like the Clean Water Act will cost the city $430 million.

``I call it Trickle Down Cowardice,'' wrote Michael Quinn, executive director of the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, to newspaper editors in his state. ``The United States Congress ... simply sends the tough decisions down to us at the local level.''

According to a survey conducted for the US Conference of Mayors, unfunded federal mandates cost cities of at least 30,000 residents a total of $6.5 billion in 1993. For 1994-1998, the figure is expected to be $54 billion.

Critics say such mandates not only cost a lot but they undermine local decisionmaking. Those who defend such mandates say they're no different from civil-rights laws that state and local officials historically resisted.

``Doesn't your state and your town have a responsibility to protect the air you breathe and the water you drink?'' asks a ``Citizen Action Guide'' sent to members of 15 national environmental organizations earlier this year. The leaders of such groups also are fighting the push for ``cost-benefit analysis'' requirements on any new federal legislation imposing costly local compliance.

Even local officials acknowledge the complexity of the issue.

``No locality should have the right to pollute the environment, deny adequate education to children, deny benefits to eligible residents, deny due process and voting rights to citizens, or operate a justice system that is not in conformance with other localities,'' states a National League of Cities report on unfunded mandates.

The issue is decidedly bipartisan. Republican and Democratic mayors are equally upset at the heavy (and expensive) hand of Uncle Sam. And whether it was 12 years of Republican administrations during which federal aid to cities declined, or a Congress controlled by Democrats that failed to provide legislative relief in the session just ended, there is plenty of blame going around.

``We are no longer just angry about the increasing burden of unfunded mandates, but also the inaction of Congress and its failure to respond to the needs of our constituents,'' says Sharpe James, mayor of Newark, N.J., and president of the National League of Cities.

Such public castigating of Washington is part of ``National Unfunded Mandates Week'' (Oct. 24-29), when members of groups like the National League of Cities are confronting lawmakers and congressional candidates with questions about where they stand and what they intend to do to help out.

The Clinton administration has supported proposals to require stricter scrutiny and on-the-record votes on federal laws potentially costly to local governments, and they had seemed headed for approval in the 103rd Congress that just ended. But unrelated amendments were added by members of both parties, and they never came to a full vote. Proponents vow to try again when Congress reconvenes.

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