Congress is trying to put the small city of St. Maries, Idaho -- population 2,442 -- out of business. Your community could be next.

How? Unfunded mandates from Washington, D.C. Right now, cities and towns all across America are being forced to raise your local taxes higher and higher to pay for billions of dollars in expenses mandated by Congress.

Pretend you are the mayor of St. Maries, a beautiful town in the northern part of my home state of Idaho. You are notified that Congress has decided to require you to raise your drinking water standards slightly to meet new federal standards for treatment of surface water. You are very leery because these federal standards keep changing, and you've never had a water quality problem before. In fact, you don't have one now: Since the 1930s your water has come from the same crystal-clear mountain source. But under the current system of unfunded federal mandates, Congress gives the orders and local taxpayers foot the bill. No discussion, no partnership, no questions. So you investigate what this new congressional mandate will cost the taxpayers of St. Maries, Idaho.

The answer: $3 million to $5 million for a new water-treatment plant. About $15,000 for each man, woman, and child in St. Maries. To make matters worse, St. Maries is already struggling to pay an $870,000 bill from the last federal mandate. Bottom line: It's all a lot more money than you've got.

Sadly, St. Maries' problem is not the exception but the rule. Although even experts have a tough time adding up the cost Congress has dumped on local communities, many estimate it is at least $2.6 billion dollars a year.

The mandate squeeze hits all cities, big and small. Edward Rendell, the mayor of Philadelphia, says unfunded federal mandates are "an issue that's killing us." Chicago's mayor, Richard Daley, says federal mandates and regulations cost the Windy City $160 million a year. Daley laments that taxpayers take the eventual hit, getting "higher taxes and fewer services" since so many city dollars wind up paying for these unfunded mandates.

Mayor Don Fraser of Minneapolis, the president of the National League of Cities, citing increasing fiscal problems, said at a congressional hearing earlier this year, "I don't know whether we should have more cops or be treating storm-water runoff."

Unlike Washington, most cities operate with balanced budgets; we can't just print money. So what is to be done? During 1990 and 1991 alone, the congressional mandate machine happily came up with more than 1,700 new mandates and regulations to pass on to the local communities. Some are even good ideas, but none are funded. So once again, local governments are turned into federal tax collectors, cutting services and raising taxes to pay for Congress' excesses.

I want to stop unfunded mandates with a simple piece of legislation I have introduced in the Senate. Senate Bill 993 -- the Community Regulatory Relief Act of 1993 -- requires that if Congress mandates, Congress pays. No more unfunded mandates on local communities.

If the federal government feels a mandate is good, enhances the well-being of our citizens and is cost-effective, then the federal government should pay for it. It becomes a national need. To make individual cities like Boston, Bakersfield, or Boise come up with funds on their own to meet federal mandates means pretending that those local citizens don't already pay federal taxes. Remember, there's only one set of taxpayers -- not a taxpayer to finance federal needs, another for state needs, and a third to fund local government.

Since I first introduced my regulatory relief bill, our nation's mayors, Democrats and Republicans from cities large and small, have supported the measure. The more than 200 members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, at that group's annual meetings in June, approved a resolution that said, "the increase in unfunded federal mandates to cities is having a profound adverse financial impact on American cities." Additionally, 31 U.S. senators, again from both parties, have recognized the need to spare our communities from further burdens by agreeing to cosponsor the legislation. As a former governor, President Bill Clinton has said he'll consider supporting the bill because, "I don't want us up there on the Hill supporting bills to load up a bunch of new burdens on the mayors and the governors when they're broke."

Critics ask how we can even consider making the federal government pay for mandates in light of our current federal budget problems and a $4 trillion national debt. But the states and cities are also strapped. Remember, cities can't just extend their debt limit, as Congress can and does.

It is time to put the responsibility squarely where it belongs. Only by requiring Congress to pay for the mandates it imposes can we begin to establish our national priorities.

Congress must stop passing the bill and then passing the buck.

Otherwise, your community could be the next St. Maries, Idaho, socked with a multimillion dollar bill from Congress to build a water plant that they have decided you must have, even if it means there may be no town left to ever need any water.

Dirk Kempthorne is a U.S. senator from Idaho and the former mayor of Boise.

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