WASHINGTON – Maryland officials welcomed President Clinton’s signing Wednesday of a bill slowing down Congress’ ability to burden state and local governments with expensive programs without paying for them.
“It couldn’t be more timely,” said Democrat Rochelle Specter, a Baltimore City councilwoman and president of the Maryland Association of Counties.
“The fact that they can’t pass legislation without the funding gives me a sense of security, in light of the cutbacks and rescissions I anticipate from Congress,” said Specter, who attended the White House signing.
Hagerstown Mayor Steven T. Sager said he hopes the new law restricting unfunded mandates will cause Congress to use a new thought process when approaching legislation.
“This should begin to put things on an equal footing so folks can understand what the impacts [of federal legislation] are,” he said in a telephone interview.
Legislation making it harder for the federal government to impose costly regulatory burdens on states, counties and municipalities passed the Senate by a 86-10 vote in January. The House passed its version in February, 360-74.
The final compromise signed yesterday passed last week 394- 28 in the House and 91-9 in the Senate.
It is the second piece of the GOP’s 10-point Contract with America to be signed by the president.
Clinton said he had “witnessed the growth of many of the unfair burdens that unfunded mandates had caused” in his 12 years as Arkansas governor. He said the bill would help shift the power from the federal government.
“This bill is another acknowledgment that Washington doesn’t necessarily have all the answers and that we have to continue to push decision making down to the local level,” he said.
The president noted that while there were no mandates before 1964, on the day he took office in 1993 there were at least 172 separate pieces of legislation imposing requirements on state and local governments.
Of Maryland lawmakers, only Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat, voted against the final version.
Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Baltimore, had voted against House legislation in February but joined the state’s seven other representatives and Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski in supporting the compromise bill. Mfume could not be reached.
The bill requires the Congressional Budget Office to analyze the cost to state and local governments of federal programs and regulations estimated to cost $50 million or more. CBO must identify available federal resources to pay for the mandate.
The CBO is also required to estimate the costs to the private sector when a mandate’s cost is $100 million or more, although no funding is required.
While Congress may still pass mandates along, a majority in both the House and Senate must vote explicitly to do so.
Since the new law is not retroactive, current programs and regulations, including those addressing clean air, clean water, and endangered species protection, will not be affected.
However, said Sager, the “more rational process” dictated by the bill should “prevent them from piling on. The trend had been piling on in geometric proportions.”
“This should put the brakes on a little bit,” said Jon Burrell, executive director of the Maryland Municipal League. There are “a lot of good ideas out there, but if Congress is going to come up with them, they shouldn’t jam them down our throats without helping with the money.” -30-