ORLANDO -- State lawmakers mounted a counterattack yesterday against the increasing burden of federal mandates.

Leaders of the National Conference of State Legislatures urged states to jawbone Congress to halt its imposition of unfunded programs requiring a local spending in such areas as health care, criminal justice, and environmental reform.

"There is no question in my mind that the federal government is putting a stranglehold on us by shifting the burden of funding these programs to the states," said the conference's president, John Martin, on the third day of the association's 17th annual session.

"We must be far more effective in dealing with this issue," he said.

Mr. Martin, who is also speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, said that one way legislatures could respond is to pressure their state's congressional delegations in Washington to resist the unfunded mandates.

"If this persists, we will work if necessary to defeat our congressman," he said.

Mr. Martin also said state lawmakers should urge their majority and minority leaders to endorse legislative resolutions opposing the federal mandates.

The Maine legislator stopped short, however, of advocating state-backed U.S. constitutional referendums to oppose the mandates.

"I don't think that is the solution," he said. "Congress could always find a loophole."

Mr. Martin underscored his plea by releasing a survey that tallies the cost to states of new federal directives. According to the report, in 1991 Congress added $15 billion of mandates to projected state spending over the next five years. Mr. Martin said the total cost of unfunded mandates could be as much as $500 billion. He did not specify a time period.

At a press conference following a speech at the conference on Tuesday, Vice President Dan Quayle said the federal mandates have posed difficulties for states. Mr. Quayle suggested that in response Congress should be careful to only impose programs that are absolutely necessary.

He resisted, however, legislator's pleas for added federal spending to fund the mandates.

"I can only assure you that the Bush administration is sensitive to the idea that when the federal government mandates something, the federal government ought to be paying as well," the vice president said. "Hopefully, what that policy will create is less of a mandate from Washington unless we feel that it is of such priority that we ought to pay for it as well. With the huge budget, deficits there are not a whole lot of mandates the federal government will be able to pay for."

Assemblyman Jim R. Tallon Jr., majority leader in the New York State Assembly, said the issue of unfunded federal mandates is so significant that state lawmakers should consider a constitutional remedy.

"This is an important theme," he said, "and I think it raises major questions about the fundamental relationship between the state and federal government."

Florida's Lieut, Gov. Buddy MacKay told legislators yesterday that until Congress drops its resistance to fundamental reform of the nation's health-care and educational systems, the problem of unfunded mandates will continue.

He advised lawmakers to "go on the offensive to create a constituency for change within the Congress."

Mr. MacKay said 1992 presents a special opportunity for realigning congressional priorities, noting that up to 100 members of Congress could be replaced in next year's elections.

"When that happens, you can then start talking about [issues such as] health care, with the states as equal partners," he said. We can no longer be spectators."

In its report, the conference estimated that under seven bills likely to be passed by Congress this year, states would be required to bear costs of $1.6 billion to implement federal programs.

The lion's share of that cost, according to the study, would be from child welfare programs, which total $993 million; increased funding for Medicaid, totaling $279.4 million; and resource conservation, totaling $196 million.

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