Block grants key to new crime bill
After Congress hammers out a revised crime bill sometime in the fall, one thing is likely: any federal assistance will be provided in the form of a block grant that gives cities and states the flexibility to spend it as they wish, within broad parameters.
They could use the money to establish neighborhood watch programs, crisis intervention centers or activities to keep kids off the street. Most federal mandates would wither.
The Republican-led Congress, along with state and local governments, are advocating that same principle in all areas of government.
“We generally support block grants and recognize the need to further consolidate existing categorical programs and provide greater flexibility to states, counties and cities in implementing programs,” says Randy Johnson, commissioner from Hennepin County, Minn., and vice-president of the National Association of Counties.
He emphasizes that state and local governments are adamantly opposed to any wholesale shifting of programs without the funds to pay for them.
According to the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, in 1993 there were 578 federal categorical programs – programs in which Congress allocates money to states and localities to meet a particular need – costing $182 billion. Under a block grant system, much of that money would be lumped together and sent to local jurisdictions, which are presumably closer to the people and know better how to spend it.
Fifteen block grant programs, a legacy of the Reagan Administration, exist today. They contain just $32 billion, about 18 percent of the $182 billion allocated in categorical programs in 1993.
Still, waste is a problem, according to the General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress’ watchdog agency. The GAO points to unemployment training, noting there are 163 federal programs administered by 15 departments and costing $20 billion this year to deal with that issue alone.
Critics of block grants contend that wholesale efforts to shift programs onto state and local governments would only contribute to bloat. Moreover, they argue it is an abdication of the federal government’s responsibilities.
Without federal mandates, they say, worthy programs could be ignored. President Clinton, for instance, is insistent that money allocated specifically for 100,000 new police officers in the 1994 crime bill not be thrown into a block grant.
Still the GAO maintains that block grants, by-and-large, have been successful. “In general, the transition from categorical programs to block grants was smooth, with states relying on existing management and service delivery systems,” it notes.
The system, GAO says, has allowed government workers to better serve the people.
But while block grants may give local jurisdictions more flexibility, such grants are likely to come with less money than they are getting now.
In fact, overall funding for block grants in 1982 was about 12 percent, or $1 billion, below the 1981 level for categorical programs, according to the GAO. Some programs, such as community services and alcohol, drug abuse and mental services were slashed by as much as 30 percent.
That is one of the primary concerns of state and local governments. But to avoid any arbitrary cuts, the GAO is recommending that funding formulas be determined by need for the services, as well as differences in regional cost structures and the ability of cities and states to contribute to the programs.