WASHINGTON -- Congress will probably pass legislation next year that would restrict the federal government's ability to impose unfunded mandates on state and local governments, congressional lobbyists predicted yesterday.

"We think something is going to get through next year," said Mike Brown, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

And Frank Shafroth, director of policy and federal relations of the National League of Cities, said it is virtually a certainty that some reform measure will be passed either this year or next.

"There is just a 100% chance," Shafroth said. "The message has been sent that Congress will not go home [at the end of 1994] without passing something."

Their comments came after the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing earlier this week on possible reform of the federal government's habit of requiring state and local governments to undertake new programs, such as cleaning up the environment, without funding them.

Afterward, several lobbyists said they were encouraged by the hearing because it shows Congress is serious about curbing unfunded mandates. The committee's chairman, Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, said he is drafting his own bill to limit mandates on smaller cities and counties.

"That hearing raised our level of optimism considerably," said Chris Wnuk, a policy associate with the National Conference of State Legislatures and editor of the group's "Mandate Monitor," published every six to eight weeks.

More than 30 bills have either been submitted to Congress or are currently being drafted that would somehow restrict unfunded mandates, according to Wnuk.

"It's really astounding the increased interest on Capitol Hill recently," said Cathy Spain, spokeswoman for the Government Finance Officers Association.

"Now I think it is in the range of possibilities," Spain said, in reference to a bill being passed by this Congress. A few months ago, she said, she did not think it was possible.

The reform plans under consideration span a range from moderate to extreme, lobbyists say. One measure would merely require a more thorough accounting of the potential costs of new mandates and who would pay those costs. Another plan would eliminate all unfunded federal mandates.

The mayors' group endorses a bill sponsored by Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, that would completely eliminate unfunded mandates, Brown said. "We're behind that one because it's the toughest," he said. "It comes out on top because it's got some teeth in it."

The bill currently has 51 co-sponsors.

Other lobbyists said it is unrealistic to expect the Kempthorne bill to pass because it would cost the federal government too much money. For example, one recent study said cities and counties alone will pay for nearly $90 billion in mandates over the next five years.

"It verges on the absurd," Shafroth said. "You can also pass a constitutional amendment saying the sun shouldn't come up."

Spain acknowledged that legislation not quite so drastic had a better chance, but she said, "The extreme is looking less extreme to me now."

The lobbyists' comments come a week after President Clinton signed an executive order calling for the reduction of unfunded mandates in future federal regulations and several local government groups held a National Unfunded Mandates Day to push Congress to curb mandates.

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