The nation's governors met in Washington this week, obviously seeking more aid for their cash-strapped states. But among both Democrats and Republicans, the most common complaint was this: Why doesn't Congress pay for its share of programs that it requires states to implement?
They have a point. Most states are now cutting budgets like mad, but they must also find money to meet the requirements of federal laws on education, homeland security, and election reform, to name just the latest ones.
Take the 2001 education law known as the No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for mandatory testing in public schools. The Bush administration's own estimate of funding the act's requirements is $30 billion. But the budget for it is only $21 billion. The states must make up the $9 billion difference.
Then there's the 1975 federal mandate for special education, known as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act). Congress promised to pay 40 percent of the costs. Instead, it pays only 17 percent. Local and state governments are left to make up the difference.
It's not that the states are squeaky- clean when it comes to passing the funding buck. Just look at California Gov. Gray Davis's recent plan to "realign" a number of drug-treatment programs - transferring them to the county level, hoping counties will fund them with new sales taxes.
National politicians long have had a tendency to micromanage local concerns, especially during the 1980s, when the federal government was running huge deficits and needed to pass off costs to states. That led to many unfunded mandates. Congress responded by enacting the 1995 Unfunded Mandate Reform Act. That law requires the Congressional Budget Office to estimate the cost of bills, ideally ensuring adequate money for programs.
But this basically useful act has loopholes that need to be closed. For instance, it doesn't apply to existing unfunded mandates, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states and cities have paid a big price to implement. And the law still makes it too easy for Congress to pass an unfunded mandate with a simple majority.
Surely the framers of the Constitution did not intend the federal government to force states into picking up unreasonable costs of federal mandates.
States, Congress, and the administration must strike a balance between a full-blown federal bailout for federally created programs, and requiring states to come up with reasonable amounts to fund new ones.
If Congress wants something badly enough, it ought to be prepared to find a way to pay for it.