INSIDE WASHINGTON/It pays to complain
A decade after federal lawmakers passed the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995 (UMRA) — legislation to curtail unfunded mandates — Congress is re-examining the law. The House Government Reform Committee held a hearing last month to review the law’s effectiveness following a barrage of complaints from local officials that unfunded mandates are ravaging their budgets. The unfunded mandates act was part of the “Contract with America” created by Republicans after their significant victories in the 1994 elections.
Local and state officials complain that in addition to paying for increased homeland security expenses, they are absorbing the cost of several federal programs, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Medicaid changes, that are not subject to the 1995 law.
“UMRA’s focus is limited,” says John Hurson, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates and president of the Washington-based National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). “As a result, the federal government continues to effectively shift costs to state and local governments.” An NCSL study claims the federal government shifted $51 billion in federal funding to states in 2004 and 2005. NCSL estimates the figure will reach $30 billion in 2006.
Five unfunded mandates have been identified by the Congressional Budget Office: the minimum wage increase in 1996, the 1998 cut in federal funding for the Food Stamp program, the 2003 preemption of state taxes on prescription drugs, the 2004 Internet tax moratorium and the 2004 directive to states to meet certain requirements for driver’s licenses.
Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, chairman of the Government Reform Panel says that unfunded mandates are difficult to avoid in some situations, such as homeland security. But he acknowledges flaws in the law. “It has become clear … that, while UMRA has been a significant step in the right direction, it has not proven to be a ‘silver bullet.’”
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander says that both political parties and the judiciary are to blame for forcing unfunded mandates on local and state governments. “Democrats still stuck in the New Deal are reflexively searching for national solutions to local problems, [and] Republicans, having found ourselves in charge, have decided it is more blessed to impose our views rather than liberate Americans from Washington. And, the federal judges have discovered the joys of acting like governors and mayors without having to run for office.” Alexander is in favor of a proposal that would require 60 Senate votes to approve an unfunded mandate, set term limits on federal court consent decrees and force Congress to acknowledge when it preempts a state law.
State and local leaders say Congress needs to understand their plight. “Congress and federal agencies must realize that local governments are not equipped to fund an infinite number of mandates and at the same time adequately fund education, public safety, homeland security, transportation and other critical public services that we’re expected to provide,” says Oklahoma City Mayor Mike Cornett, a member of the Washington-based U.S. Conference of Mayors urban economic policy committee.
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.