Those 'Mandates' To Get Close Look

COMMENT

November 14, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

As a college student, I had a group of contentious friends who enjoyed arguing. Most of the arguments had to do with politics, but the loudest and most bitter had to do with money, particularly the spending of it.

One of my friends, who will remain unidentified, had a knack for knowing what we needed to improve our lives. Whenever we were in a store, he would loudly insist that if we bought this leather jacket and those cowboy boots, we would have no trouble getting a date for Saturday night.

Whenever we went out as a group to get something to eat, he would recommend the most expensive dishes on the menu. If we decided to eat something cheap, he would deride our choices.

It became a joke that this particular friend was the "champion of everyone else's deficit spending."

This recollection came to mind as I read some reports about unfunded government mandates, which have been in the news the past couple of weeks.

Late last month, governors and mayors across the country held a series of media events to hammer home the point that they were spending money on federally dictated programs and requirements that were never funded. The mayors also complained that state governments are just as bad when it comes to ordering programs, then forcing local governments to pick up the tab.

Several articles quoted Mount Airy Mayor Gerald Johnson, who complained about the unfairness of these "unfunded mandates" and how they are driving his town into bankruptcy.

He pointed out that about 12 percent of his town's budget, or about $120,000, will be spent this year in order to comply with federal mandates on drinking water, waste water and air quality.

If these mandates continue to grow, Mr. Johnson said, Mount Airy just might have to turn in its charter. Then, he joked, Mount Airy will "just be passing the buck to the county."

During the past dozen years of mushrooming federal budget deficits, Congress found it easier to order states to institute the water quality programs the federal government could no longer afford.

Between 1981 and 1990, Congress passed and the president signed 27 major statutes that either created new programs or expanded existing ones.

For instance, in 1989, Congress required Medicaid (state medical insurance for the poor) to cover children up to the age of six and pregnant women with incomes at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty line. Previously, the federal poverty level had been the cutoff point. The federal government expected the states to pick up the bulk of the additional costs.

Environmental mandates including requiring all cities with more than 100,000 people to obtain discharge permits for their storm water. The list goes on and on.

While many local officials complain about the unnecessary nature of these mandates, though, some of them have merit.

The problem is that the government officials ordering the mandates don't have to take responsibility for their cost and don't have to worry about their cost-effectiveness.

Those concerns are left to others, such as Sykesville Mayor Kenneth Clark, who finds that to comply he has three unpleasant choices: Raise taxes, increase fees or cut services.

State officials are now responding to these cries of anguish from local government leaders.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., Democrat of Kent County, and the president of the state Senate, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Democrat of Prince George's, have asked the legislative staff to examine the 750 state mandates on local governments. Over the next two years, the legislative leaders want to examine government spending in several areas, including education, public safety, transportation, judiciary and corrections.

Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Miller say they want recommendations on measures that would remove the unnecessary fiscal burden from local governments.

They also point out that with the exception of state education aid, all state assistance to localities has been declining.

General government aid has declined to $419 million from $540 million in the past four years. Similar declines have taken place in state money for local health departments, community colleges and libraries.

Not to be outdone, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has solicited information on unreasonable, unnecessary and cumbersome regulations and mandates from the Maryland Association of County Officials, the Maryland Municipal League and others. The governor also promised not to introduce any legislation with unfunded mandates in 1994.

Re-evaluating government responsibility and ensuring adequate funding to cover the costs of mandates handed down between levels of government is indeed welcome.

One worry, however, is that the effort to eliminate mandates becomes an excuse to repeal, gut or weaken important pieces of law that have had beneficial effects. A number of state-mandated acts -- the state forest conservation law and setting minimum targets for recycling, for example -- have produced the intended results without burdensome costs to local governments.

Still, state government deserves credit for recognizing the problem -- unlike my friend, who was totally oblivious to his "unfunded mandates."

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carrol County.

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