Mayors Expect Relief From GOP Congress On Federal Strings

FROM St. Louis to New York City to Seattle, mayors overseeing the Democratic Party's core constituents in big cities are cracking cautious smiles at the prospect of a shrinking federal government under hands-off Republicans.

Although they recognize that the Republican takeover could mean fewer federal dollars flowing to cities, some mayors are optimistic that any losses will be offset by fewer federal demands on limited city budgets.

``If you let us spend the money more in the way that we want to spend the money, we can actually spend less money more effectively,'' says New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican.

``We look forward to meeting with Speaker Gingrich and Senator Dole on issues of local responsibility and local opportunities,'' says Victor Ashe, the Republican mayor of Knoxville, Tenn., and president of the US Conference of Mayors.

About 20 members of the Conference of Mayors met in Chicago last week to discuss how the congressional realignment will affect cities. The mayors emerged from the meeting upbeat about the possibilities of working with the new Congress.

Under the new leadership, legislation to eliminate ``unfunded federal mandates'' - federal laws that local governments must implement and fund - now has a better chance of getting through Congress. A bill to curtail federal mandates was blocked by the Democratic leadership in the last Congress. ``Tom Foley and George Mitchell basically thwarted cities at every turn in the road on this issue,'' Mayor Ashe says.

The new Republican leaders supported the original bill banning unfunded federal mandates, and they are expected to reintroduce it early next year. It will be ``the law of the land a year from now,'' predicts Seattle Mayor Norman Rice, a Democrat.

Although Republicans are more jubilant than Democrats, mayors everywhere are struggling with overburdened budgets and relish the idea of fewer federal demands on local funds. In Knoxville, federal mandates consume $10 million a year. That's 10 percent of the entire city budget, Ashe says.

Democratic Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. of St. Louis is less confident that federal mandate-relief legislation will pass next year. But, he says, ``I'm all for it if they can build a coalition and get it passed.'' Mayor Bosley would far prefer to apply the $4.4 million spent this year on federal mandates to neighborhood stabilization, housing, and infrastructure needs in St. Louis.

Other general areas of agreement between the new congressional leadership and the nation's mayors include welfare reform, the line-item veto, and a balanced-budget amendment.

For more than a decade, the Conference of Mayors has supported a line-item veto, Mr. Rice says. And the mayors are willing to work with Congress on acceptable language for a balanced-budget amendment. ``If the country ultimately ends up with a balanced budget, the country as a whole is better off,'' Ashe says. ``And if the country is better off, then cities are better off.''

Bosley agrees. ``But the key is how you do it,'' he adds. ``We need to take that into consideration.''

The same goes for welfare reform. ``Everyone favors welfare reform,'' Ashe says. ``We, as mayors, have to deal with third- and fourth-generations on welfare. But it needs to be implemented in a way that makes sense and doesn't leave the burden sitting on the city streets.''

Bosley worries that Republicans may recommend a ``cold-turkey, shock-therapy approach.'' He supports ``a more deliberate, moderate approach to reform'' that eases welfare recipients off health care and other benefits.

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