One of America's strengths is a balanced tension between state and federal government. That balance goes out of whack, however, when Washington piles on "mandates" for state services but fails to pony up money for the costs.
One estimate for the current unfunded federal mandates is $29 billion, based on a recent study by the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. That tally would rise to $34.2 billion under the proposed Bush budget for the next fiscal year. The NCSL notes that two of the largest unfunded mandates are for laws dealing with special education and standardized testing in public schools.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which Congress has charged with assessing the impact of such mandates, takes a different view. It argues that many "mandates" aren't really mandates if states can opt to forgo federal funding, say in education, and then not follow federal rules on special education and testing.
It's fair to ask, however, how states can refuse to ignore these two, high-profile education "mandates." If they don't fulfill them by legal requirement, many states feel they must do so by public opinion. Further, states' Title I federal money was subsumed in the recent No Child Left Behind education law, virtually tying states' hands.
The CBO also calculates that Congress passed only two bona fide mandates between 1996 and 2002 that impose costs of more than $50 million - a 1996 increase in the minimum wage, and a 1997 federal decrease in spending on food stamps.
The 1995 Unfunded Mandates Reform Act was supposed to fix this problem. But loopholes prevent that. The law doesn't apply when bills are amended, or changed in a House-Senate compromise, for instance. Closing them would help.
States are complaining more loudly than ever because nearly all of them face budget shortfalls. Many overspent in the plush '90s and now have a hard time saying no to groups receiving services.
Congress should monitor what appears to be a decreasing ability for states to make budget choices because federal law locks them into set spending. At the same time, states need to look at their reliance on federal dollars. According to another NCSL report, states' financial outlook is improving, possibly suggesting an ability to do some fiscal weaning away from federal monies.
Washington shouldn't hold states to account for government services if it doesn't hold itself accountable for paying for them.