Heeding the States...

The "new federalism" has been around since the salad days of the Reagan revolution, but it has rarely been newer than it is right now. The states are actually taking up a big piece of what for decades has been a federal responsibility. That, of course, is welfare.

But as the reality of that transfer of authority settles in, many governors are having second thoughts about the responsibility they were dealt by Congress and the president last year. In particular, those whose states are home to large populations from abroad are concerned the welfare law's stripping of benefits from legal immigrants will leave them with a substantial new public assistance expense. In effect, a new form of "unfunded mandate."

Gov. George Pataki of New York, for instance, was outspoken about the need to adjust this facet of the law. But his complaints didn't become policy at the recent National Governors' Association meeting in Washington. The governors met strong resistance from Republican leaders in Congress, who warned that the welfare reform act was not about to be overhauled. The part of it relating to legal immigrants, though not crucial to its welfare-to-work theme, does account for much of the law's $40 billion in anticipated savings.

As he promised, President Clinton has joined the governors' cause. In his State of the Union Message, he restated his determination to adjust the welfare law, starting with the legal immigrant cutoff. He wants to see it jettisoned, or at least substantially changed.

The case is essentially this: Immigrants come here either with job prospects or with the assurance that relatives or other sponsors will see to their needs. That's the agreement, and it should rule out public assistance. But circumstances change, people face emergencies, sponsors face hard times, and a certain portion of legal, tax-paying immigrants turn to government help. Should they be automatically turned away?

No. Their situations should be weighed, and if they are capable of work, they should be urged in that direction. But if they are elderly or disabled, the country's humanitarian traditions dictate caring for them.

That's about where the governors ended up in their appeal to Congress - paring it down to the most needy immigrants. That much, certainly, Congress should agree to.

Other welfare-law adjustments are bound to arise, and the governors - and local officials - should have a say in such legislative tuning.

Meanwhile, the states are lobbying for new spending autonomy in other areas too. Job training, for example. The newly applied "new federalism" will work only if it's a balanced partnership. Uncle Sam must retain some authority to coordinate and push for equity - even as the states are given the freedom to tailor programs to local needs.

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