WASHINGTON -- Sometimes in this town, issues have to percolate for years before lawmakers take them seriously.

A case in point is the complaint by state and local officials that the federal government needs to stop imposing unfunded mandates.

Unfunded mandates involve standards on everything from cleaning up the water supply to fighting illegal drugs, which Washington imposes on state and local governments without giving them money to help pay for the cost of compliance.

For several years now, no one on Capitol Hill seemed to be paying attention when mayors, governors, and county officials pleaded for an end to unfunded federal mandates. Now there is evidence that Congress is starting to listen.

No less than the Senate majority leader, George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, told representatives from the National League of Cities last month that he would find ways to help them. For example. Mitchell said he would push Congress to allocate federal funds to aid states and localities in complying with mandates under the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Apparently, the mayors and governors have been complaining pretty loudly. Nation's Cities Weekly the league's weekly newspaper, reported that Mitchell said during last month's meeting, "We would have to be dense not to be aware of your concerns."

Federal mandates weren't always unfunded. During the 1970s and early 1980s, large-amounts of federal aid went to municipalities, particularly through the General Revenue Sharing program.

During the mid-1980s, Congress killed revenue sharing, in large part because lawmakers were becoming increasingly concerned about the burgeoning federal budget deficit.

As the deficit got larger, Congress came up with an ingenious way of advancing federal goals without spending money: Order the states and cities to carry out the programs with their own funds. And so was born the unfunded federal mandate.

The unfunded mandate has thrived since birth, despite the protestations of state and local officials. But over the last year or so, a few members of Congress seem to have gotten the message, and have been at least paying lip service to the cause.

Earlier this year, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., introduced legislation that would impose a 10-year moratorium on certain types of federal mandates, and would eliminate some mandates for small cities.

In May, Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, introduced legislation that would require Washington to help pay the cost of complying with federal mandates.

Congress hasn't taken any action on either bill. But their mere existence shows that the consciousness of lawmakers has been raised. Add to that Mitchell's remarks, and there's a clear indication that awareness has percolated to the top of the congressional leadership.

Despite Mitchell's encouraging words, however, state and local officials do not appear to be quieting down. If anything, they are turning up the heat. Four state and local organizations announced last month that they are planning a public relations campaign to educate the public about unfunded mandates.

The campaign will kick off on Oct. 27, which the organizations have dubbed "National Unfunded Mandates Day." On that day, they will release two studies, one covering counties and the other cities, that they say will show the harmful effects of unfunded mandates on state and local finances.

State and local officials Will need all the public support they can get. Whatever progress they have made in increasing lawmakers' awareness of the unfunded-mandate problem, they still face the same huge obstacle that looms over most decisions made in Washington these days: the federal budget deficit.

It will be hard for federal lawmakers to say good-bye to a seemingly painless and cost-free way of accomplishing federal goals. But if state and local officials keep stirring the pot, it could be ready to boil soon, and Congress will have to act or get scalded.

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