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Foiling federal mandates.

Congressmen, many of them former state legislators, are presenting some wacky and some not so wacky proposals to thwart unfunded federal mandates.

Picture this: A bill before Congress is tied to a mandate that will cost states big bucks. As debate begins, a large, colorful chart displaying the estimated cost of every unfunded mandate imposed on states by the current Congress starts flashing in front of the chamber. It's a Mandate-o-Meter, brainchild of Ohio Congressman Paul Gillmor.

Gillmor, who served in the Ohio Senate for 22 years, says he wants to dramatize how an out-of-money federal government shifts the burden to state and local governments. A former Republican leader and state Senate president, Gillmor says he remembers the struggle of trying to balance a state budget peppered with federal mandates.

Gillmor's Mandate-o-Meter is just one of the ideas cropping up in Washington, D.C., and in state legislatures around the country that aim to foil the horde of unfunded mandates that proliferate in Congress each session.

Federal mandates can cost a state up to 25 percent of its annual general fund budget. A 1992 survey by the Louisiana Legislative Fiscal Office found that in 13 Southern states alone, Medicaid mandates carried a $1.9 billion price tag in FY 1991 and $1.5 billion in FY 1992.

Almost 20 bills intending to address the mandate problem were introduced in the last Congress, many of them by former state legislators. In the first two months of the 103rd Congress, 12 relief bills have been introduced. Some address the weak points in existing law, requiring, for instance, that cost estimates affecting state and local governments be made later in the process to capture any changes in the legislation, or that debate on a bill be stopped if it comes to the floor without a cost estimate.

Under current law, the Congressional Budget Office is required to provide estimates for legislation expected to cost state and local governments more than $200 million per year. The estimate is required at the committee stage if it can be provided in a timely manner.

Other bills call for full reimbursement of state and local expenditures for federal requirements. Some propose that state and local governments be exempt from federal dictates unless money is provided. Another piece of legislation suggests a re-sorting of federal and state responsibilities for various programs.

New Jersey Congressman Bob Franks would like to amend the Constitution to protect states from congressional buck-passing. Franks' bill declares that states shall not be obligated by any new federal law unless the bill is paid by the federal government. Legislation that proposes to amend the Constitution must pass both houses of Congress by a two-thirds vote and then be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures. A former state legislator, Representative Franks says the idea is a "long-shot" approach, but his major goal is to raise awareness of the unfunded mandate problem. His main fear, he says, is that in attempting to balance the federal budget, Congress will load the states with unfunded requirements.

Some states don't intend to wait for relief to come from Congress. Idaho is developing a computer system that will record costs driven by federal requirements. Alabama lawmakers have unanimously passed a resolution asking members of their congressional delegation "to appear before a joint session of the Legislature to discuss the problems of unfunded federal mandates."

A state's congressional delegation should appear before the legislature at the beginning or end of every session to give lawmakers the opportunity to ask why Washington keeps placing the responsibility for funding costly federal programs in the hands of the states, says Alabama Representative Perry Hooper Jr. The move would make "the public better aware of why and how state funds are being spent, often against their own wishes and priorities," he says.

Michael Ciamarra, of the Alabama Family Alliance, says the Alabama concept harks back to the time when legislatures elected their state's U.S. senators. Before 1913, he says, most Southern states expected to meet with their U.S. senators once a year. Direct election should not preclude this kind of communication, Ciamarra says.

Inspired by Alabama, Arizona is looking at a similar measure.

Christine Wnuk tracks federal mandates for NCSL. She is editor of The Hall of the States Mandate Monitor, which is available from NCSL's marketing department, (303) 830-2200.
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Author:Wnuk, Christine
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:May 1, 1993
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