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Lawmakers Vow Quick Attack on ‘Unfunded Mandates’ : Congress: Local officials complain at Senate hearing that Washington is interfering in their concerns without bearing a share of the costs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Promising to make good on a hot-button political promise, a bipartisan group in Congress pledged Thursday to rush action on a measure that seeks to limit the increasingly high cost of paying for programs ordered by Washington.

The legislation, designated “S.1" as the first bill introduced in the Senate, would force Congress to take special steps before approving major new “unfunded mandates,” potentially saving the nation’s cities, counties and state governments billions of dollars.

It is a major reform outlined in the “contract with America” campaign manifesto of House Republicans and one roundly supported by a broad coalition of local government leaders who are urging Congress to push for its immediate passage. Congressional leaders pledged to push the measure to the House and Senate floors as early as next week.

In a hearing Thursday, local officials complained that unfunded mandates have allowed the federal government to interfere in local concerns without bearing a share of the costs. They warned at a joint meeting of the Senate Budget and Governmental Affairs committees that the situation has forced many local governments to scrap bread-and-butter community services such as hiring extra police officers, operating landfills and opening new fire stations.

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In California, communities are finding that unfunded mandates are gobbling up as much as a third of their local budgets, local officials said, and Gov. Pete Wilson has refused to pay to carry out the congressionally approved requirement that state motor vehicle offices provide voter registration.

“We’re being forced to slash basic services,” Mayor Edward Rendell of Philadelphia told the lawmakers. “And you are robbing us of our own ability to make decisions about what is right for us.”

The laws imposed by Congress were meant to provide uniform protection or assistance to citizens in all states and communities and are seen as well-intentioned but, increasingly, too expensive. And as the number of mandates has grown, many local officials have derided Congress for becoming too heavily involved in local affairs.

Similar legislation to limit their use never made it to the floor of the House or Senate last year, although committees on both sides had strongly recommended passage.

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Over the holiday break, a coalition of lawmakers, led by Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R-Ida.) and Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), fashioned a new measure that would make the federal government either pay for mandatory projects or force Congress to take a second, separate vote to determine whether a particular mandate is unusual enough that it should be paid for by local governments.

The measure would not affect requirements already approved by Congress, such as environmental cleanup projects, and it would apply only to new programs costing more than $50 million.

With the Republican takeover of Capitol Hill, both houses of Congress were predicting Thursday that the long-sought reforms would be enacted soon.

According to congressional sources, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) have advised other Republican leaders that the Senate would act on the issue before any other and that the House would delay other large reform issues--such as a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution--until it deals with unfunded mandates.

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In addition, Sally Katzen, administrator of information and regulatory affairs at the Office of Management and Budget, said Thursday that President Clinton supports swift action on the bill. She noted that as a former Arkansas governor, Clinton “faced the burdens of federal mandates for 12 long years.”

“The complaints that have been raised concerning unfunded mandates are real,” she said. “The President has heard them, and he wants to respond to them.”

To that end, key committee leaders in both chambers said they have scheduled committee votes as early as Monday and that they plan to start floor debate by Tuesday.

“The House is committed to moving the legislation in short order,” Portman said.

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In the Senate, Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) dismissed complaints from some Democrats that the bill is being pushed too fast, especially since it was introduced just Wednesday, the first day of the new Congress.

“It’s our intention to expedite this measure and get it to the President’s desk in the very near future,” he said.

Within 24 hours, the bill had picked up 56 co-sponsors in the Senate. And at the joint hearing Thursday, no opposition was heard from either Republican or Democratic senators.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the financial burden on local governments for the programs have risen sharply, from $225 million in 1986 to $2.8 billion in 1991.

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“And the CBO readily admits that its estimates are highly conservative,” said Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.). “We really do not know the full extent and magnitude of the situation.”

Whatever its fiscal dimensions, the impact on local communities has been widespread.

Wilson, in refusing to implement the National Voter Registration Act, argues that the program would cost California more than $35 million a year.

Other governors, mayors and city officials said they have similar predicaments.

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Gov. George Voinovich of Ohio said the most recent federal highway law forces states to recycle scrap tires by using them in highway pavement, a new and expensive procedure that he said will cost Ohio $50 million a year in “scarce highway resources.”

“For the same cost, Ohio could repave nearly 700 miles of rural highways or rehabilitate 137 aging bridges,” he said.


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