We'll Do the Spending, You Do the Taxing

April 07, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

LAS VEGAS — Las Vegas. -- Michael Leavitt, Utah's Republican governor, recently came here to demonstrate the practice and defend the theory of federalism. He came to argue on a network news program that Nevada and other states that are friendly to gambling -- almost all the states -- are foolishly gambling with the quality of their lives. Utah, he said, will go its own way.

That is federalism -- states enjoying significant discretion to shape different destinies. At least that is what federalism is supposed to mean. But the federal government is making a mockery of federalism. And Governor Leavitt is part of a broad insurrection of state and local officials against imperial Washington's favorite device of imperialism -- unfunded mandates. They are costly obligations imposed on lower governments by, and not funded by, Washington.

As private-sector institutions move toward decentralization and downsizing, the federal government obdurately continues to consolidate control over state and local governments, at considerable cost to the dignity and efficiency of these governments. Paternalistic federal officials, says Mr. Leavitt, view states merely as units to administer -- and finance -- Washington's agenda. He despairs of Congress mending its ways. It has exhausted its revenues but has an inexhaustible desire to dictate, which it does with unfunded mandates.

The governor hopes, against the evidence of history, that states can assert rights under the 10th Amendment: ''The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.'' State legislatures, he notes, could even call a constitutional convention to force a debate about federalism.

It is late in the day to hope for resuscitation of the notion that the federal government is a government of limited, delegated and enumerated powers. When was the last time a Washington action was successfully challenged -- or, for that matter, just challenged -- on the grounds that the federal government was overstepping restrictions placed on it by the Constitution's federal structure?

Still, unfunded mandates are a particularly annoying derogation of the right of the governments closest to the people to spend for programs they choose to fund. For example, Mayor Ferd Harrison of Scotland Neck, North Carolina, tells the National Journal that the Environmental Protection Agency ordered his town of 3,000 to monitor a particular substance in its sewage discharge. So Mayor Harrison has to hire someone costing more than $30,000. But with his small tax base, a one-cent increase in the property tax produces just $5,000. When he asked, ''Where do we get the money?'' he says the EPA replied, ''That's your problem, but if you don't get it, you're subject to a fine.''

Mayor Hal Conklin of Santa Barbara, California, says compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act required spending $400,000 on new playground equipment. It was, he says, money ''taken right out of child-care facilities, out of after-school programs for disadvantaged youth.''

Mayor Sharpe James of Newark says the average municipality spends about 11 percent of its budget on public safety and about 11 percent on federal mandates. ''The crime bill says we'll give you 100,000 police officers. If they were to remove the burden of unfunded federal mandates, they wouldn't have to give us the police officers. We could hire them ourselves.''

Ohio's Gov. George Voinovich, a Republican, leads the simmering revolution of all other governments against the federal government, and he is blunt. He says that Washington, not content with bankrupting itself, is now bent on bankrupting everyone else.

Unfunded mandates -- 174 have been enacted in the last 20 years -- will cost Ohio governments $1.74 billion in the four years 1992-95. In addition to these costs, and the pre-emption of state and local initiatives, other unfunded mandates imposed on the private sector (the Clean Air Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and many more) reduce tax revenues by reducing private-sector profits.

Small wonder that anti-Washington feeling runs high not only among anti-political people but also among serious politicians who find the scope of their discretion, and hence the dignity of their offices, reduced by federal mandates. Such mandates are another Washington evasion of a fundamental responsibility of governance, the duty to bring desires into conformity with revenues.

Unfunded mandates, which may be driving some states to resort to gambling as a source of revenues, are a vice that compounds the vice that gives rise to them -- deficit spending. Washington does as much deficit spending as possible and then resorts to mandates to continue throwing its weight around. The sole virtue of such mandates is that they are turning all other governments into incubators of the interesting idea that the federal government should confine itself to spending only the revenues it has the courage to raise.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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