WASHINGTON - President Harry S. Truman was fond of saying the buck stopped with him. But Truman is long gone, and local officials now complain that politicians in Washington do nothing but pass the buck.
In an effort to reverse the tide and ensure that local governments are seen as partners with the federal government, four organizations yesterday announced plans for a campaign to raise public awareness about unfunded federal mandates.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities, and the International City/County Management Association are ultimately fighting for passage of legislation that would bar Congress from imposing unfunded mandates. The catchphrase refers to the costly programs or requirements that Congress enacts but does not fund, leaving local governments to pay for them.
A bill to outlaw unfunded mandates has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, a former mayor of Boise and Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif.
At a press conference announcing the drive to abolish unfunded mandates, local officials said the federal government should return to Trumanesque principles.
"It's time for Washington to stop passing the buck," said Barbara Todd, president of the countries group and commissioner of Pinellas County, Fla. "If elected officials in Washington believe that a program is necessary for the nation, then funding from Washington is also necessary."
Louisville, Ky., Mayor Jerry Abramson, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said the federal government increasingly has come to rely on unfunded mandates as a means of accomplishing national goals. He said that from 1971 to 1987, the federal government imposed just 17 mandates on municipal governments. But from 1988 to 1992, the federal government imposed 88 mandates on municipalities in the area of toxic management alone.
Those mandates do not come cheap. Mayor Greg Lashutka of Columbus said that officials in his city found it will cost $1 billion over 10 years for Columbus to comply with state and federal environmental mandates.
"That's $856 per household, per year, by the year 2000," said Lashutka, who also is chairman of the National League of Cities' unfunded mandates committee.
Milwaukee County, Wis., Executive F. Thomas Ament called mandated programs "a cancer in our midst." He said mandates eat up nearly two-thirds of Milwaukee County's annual budget, up from half the budget recently as last year.
Local officials expressed concern yesterday that as the federal government looks at further ways to cut spending and reduce the deficit, even more unfunded mandates may follow.
Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell, who is vice chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said he is concerned that Congress is "going to pass the bill and pass the buck onto us."
Rendell and the other local officials stressed that they had no qualms about the goals of most federal mandates. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act "has laudable goals," Rendell said. But complying with the act could eat up his city's budget, he said.
Rendell said Philadelphia sets aside about $15 million annually for street repaving, which he said is not enough to keep up with the city's needs. But under the disability law, the city will have to spend almost half of that money to install curb cuts.
The coalition of local government groups said it has designated Oct. 27 as National Unfunded Mandates Day, when city and county officials around the nation will hold news conferences and public forums to call attention to the impact mandates have on local budgets.
"When mayors are forced to close recreation centers and swimming pools and lay off safety forces because of these federal mandates, we want outraged citizens to know where to direct their anger," said Lashutka of Columbus. "They should tell Washington, 'Thank you.'"