Mayors attack Bush's plan to switch grants to states

February 09, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Representatives of the U.S. Conference of Mayors assailed yesterday a Bush administration initiative to abolish $15 billion worth of federal programs and turn the money over to the states, promising to "go to the wall" to see that the plan does not win congressional approval.

The proposal, presented in President Bush's budget plan for the coming fiscal year, would combine funding for the Community Development Block Grant and 10 other domestic programs into one single grant sent directly to state governments. The mayors fear that this would inevitably reduce the amount of federal support that cities receive, since state legislatures tend to be dominated by suburban and rural interests.

"If this money goes to the states . . . it will require state legislatures and state bureaucracies to make political decisions about how the money will be spent in the best political way, not the best social way," said Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, who serves as vice president of the mayors' organization. "These are political decisions, and the political power and votes are no longer in the cities."

Mr. Flynn, a Democrat, said that the bipartisan group would "go to the wall on this one. This is a fight we cannot lose."

Since its creation in the mid-1970s, the Community Development Block Grant program has provided funds directly to cities for use in development projects. In its budget request submitted to Congress on Monday, the administration proposed to cut the grant's budget by $300 million, to $2.9 billion, and commingle its budget with the budgets of other programs -- including housing, social services and welfare administration -- that mostly serve the poor.

The plan has met skepticism and hostility from many congressional Democrats, who think that a consolidated block grant would eventually prove easier to eliminate than the separate programs. White House Budget Director Richard G. Darman has countered with the promise that the $15 billion grant would be continued for at least five years.

Nevertheless, Democratic leaders suggest that the administration advanced the plan largely for rhetorical purposes, and they express confidence that it will not win favor on Capitol Hill.

The plan has enjoyed a favorable reception from governors, many of whom are wrestling with out-of-balance budgets and citizens who don't want their taxes increased.

But the eagerness with which governors, hungry for sources of unrestricted revenue, have embraced it has set off alarms among the nation's mayors, who are struggling under concentrated burdens of drug abuse, crime and poverty.

The mayors argue that cities do not receive a proportionate share of federal funds when state legislatures have authority over the funds' distribution. Only through explicit earmarking, they say, could cities be assured of steady federal support.

At a news conference the mayors held to publicize the problem, the mayor of Newark, N.J., Sharpe James, cited the dilemma faced by his governor, Democrat James J. Florio, who has seen his popularity damaged by state tax increases.

"What's he going to do with the money?" Mr. James asked. "Will it be used for tax relief? Will it be used to improve his image? I think all of these possibilities are there."

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