Reformers Beware

MURRAY SEASONGOOD never was a household name. But the one-time Midwestern mayor had one claim on political immortality. He coined an aphorism that is as valid today as ever:

If Gabriel makes your laws and Lucifer administers them, you get bad government.

This wasn't a plea for more angelic politicians. It was simply a warning to citizens to watch actions (administration) not just words (laws).

That warning is newly pertinent as the Congress prepares to send more of the administering action in such areas as welfare and education back to America's states and cities.

Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas has just reminded us of the need for caution by promising the nation's mayors to support block grants for cities and well as states. This means your tax dollars travel to Washington as always but get sent back to cities for education, states for welfare, and so on.

Mr. Dole pledged to review "unfunded mandates" for cities as well as states - Washington telling cities what to do and forcing them to fund through local taxes.

None of this is news. Block grants and reduction of funding mandates have been the vehicle for Republican budget reform since last fall. American history abounds in such reforms. When the previous great reform (read New Deal and Great Society) becomes atrophied or bloated, the pendulum swings in another direction.

In this case the method of reform may be initially healthy. The vigor and ingenuity of many of the nation's new governors and mayors have been widely noted. But Messrs. Gingrich and Dole would be wise to give some thought to the Seasongood adage as they prepare to reroute tax revenues back to localities while at the same time untying federal strings (mandates).

One lesson learned from the "revenue sharing" reform in the early 1970s was that state and local officials are generally quite careful in the early years of spending federal grants. But in later years there is a temptation to use this money in ways that suit their own purposes. Administrators gradually slip away from being Gabriels for the laws they didn't write - and the revenues for which they themselves didn't have to tax citizens.

Moral: Don't switch from the burden of unfunded mandates to the risk of unmandated funds without a watchdog system. The local level may be closer to peoples' real needs. But large amounts of tax money always have to be watched.

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