The Republican takeover of Congress bodes well for cities. New House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Majority Leader Robert Dole have both promised to act quickly on legislation to curb unfunded mandateslaws requiring localities to spend their own money to carry out Washington-devised programs.
Unfunded mandates are tempting for Congress: they allow lawmakers to take credit for addressing a problem without having to pay for it. Mayors of both political parties argue that such lawsparticularly the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Actimpose huge hidden taxes on cities, draining off the money they need to perform basic municipal services and imposing onesize-fitsall solutions that ignore local needs.
A study by the Price Waterhouse accounting firm found that local governments nationwide spend roughly oneeighth of their budgets on just ten federal mandates. New York City spent $476 million in 1993 complying with those mandatesa small proportion of its total budget (about 2 percent). But that number greatly understates the problem because New York State also passes on half of the cost of its welfare and Medicaid spendingmuch of it federally mandatedto local governments. These programs cost the city nearly $3 billion in 1993.
"If you put a stop to unfunded mandates, [we] have to rethink the way we legislate," says Representative Gary Condit, a California Democrat who has sponsored mandaterelief legislation. "It means we have to think about how much money this costs and who's going to pay for it."
The mandaterelief proposals range from a ban on any new unfunded mandates to a requirement that Congress prepare an analysis of any new legislation's cost to localities. Congress should take the next step, too, and reconsider many of its existing mandates. Local governments need the freedom to respond to the needs of local citizens, not the dictates of legislators in Washington.