Local Govts. Cope With Unfunded Mandates

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The federal government continues to pass billions of dollars worth of unfunded mandates (search) on to local governments, despite a 10-year-old law aimed at curbing the practice, state and local lawmakers said Tuesday.

"The federal government continues to effectively shift costs to state and local governments," said Maryland Delegate John Hurson, in testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform.

Hurson, who also serves as president of the National Conference of State Legislatures (search), said that federal regulations could wind up costing the states $30 billion in the fiscal 2006.

The Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (search), which took effect in 1996, required that the federal government consider the financial impact on state and local governments or the private sector of any "enforceable duty" that accompanied federal laws.

But local officials pointed to the Clean Air Act (search), the Clean Water Act (search), the Homeland Security Act (search), the Individuals with Disabilities Act (search) and the No Child Left Behind Act (search) as federal laws that states, counties and cities have wound up paying for.

The Congressional Budget Office (search) said Tuesday that duties "imposed as a condition of federal assistance or duties that arise from participating in voluntary federal programs" do not count as federal mandates under the law.

Under that definition, said CBO Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, there were few intergovernmental or private-sector mandates in 2004, and that most of those that were imposed did not exceed the threshold set by the Unfunded Mandate Reform Act (search).

But Holtz-Eakin conceded that while few costs met the actual definition of "mandate," added costs for local governments go along with some federal legislation.

That was of little comfort to local government officials at the hearing.

"Anything you make us do that you don't fund is a mandate," said Gerry Connolly, the chairman of the Fairfax County, Va., Board of Supervisors.

The only way for lawmakers to make up the costs, is through raising taxes and cutting services, local government officials said at the hearing.

Local governments in Maryland are being burdened with costs of federal regulations that can be "hugely expensive," said Candace Donoho, the director of government relations for the Maryland Municipal League. She singled out regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (search) and the Department of Homeland Security as being particularly costly for cities.

"If the feds mandate a change in local regulation and there is no money associated with it," cities often have no choice but to raise rates for services like water, she said.

Donoho said she was not surprised that federal officials may not see how costly certain federal legislation can be for local governments and local taxpayers.

"Our mayors and council members hear about it in the grocery stores or at the post office," she said.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.