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The Underhanded Purpose of Unfunded Mandates

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Message Larry Sakin
Here in America, there are a profundity of large, meaningless issues that are floated into the mainstream so smaller, more meaningful initiatives can be instituted under the radar screen of the media and the general electorate. The larger issues generally regard social dynamics, everything from same sex marriage to the supposed immorality of the Hollywood film industry. Conservatives use these targets along with ceaseless invective against so-called "liberal values" to distract their gullible loyalists into believing that such values are the cause of a ruinous society.

One of the more meaningful policies that is obfuscated by conservative smoke and mirrors is unfunded mandates. When most people think of unfunded mandates, they think of President Bush's disastrous 'No Child Left Behind' educational program, which placed a number of regulations upon school systems that were supposed to be funded by penurious block grants to the states. But several American communities are feeling the pinch of numerous unfunded mandates, mostly created by Congress and implemented through federal agencies, which are blatantly illegal.

The Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995 (UMRA) was an important part of the Republicans Contract With America. The Act attempts to address the problem of Congress' seemingly uncontrollable desire to pass unfunded mandates. In short, Congress passes laws requiring state and local governments to implement national policies without providing those governments with funding, leaving the financing to the state and local governmental entities. UMRA attacks all unfunded federal legislation regardless of its subject matter, public support, or necessity, and attempts to rectify in one statute problems which took decades to create. Even though these mandates have been illegal for twelve years, Congress continues to pass them.

The effect is dire on small communities. Jerry Oliver, mayor of Temple, Oklahoma (population 1100) writes: "To make their job easier to manage (control) the American citizens, various federal agencies are working toward "regionalization" (i.e. school systems, water plants, sewer plants, etc.). Thus, we have to comply with their standard or be shutdown. This forces the people to move from small towns and reside in the larger cities where the federal agencies already have control."

In many cases, unfunded mandates have put small governments in a situation where they have to rob Peter to pay Paul. Oliver continues: "With almost all the city costs that we have to obligate to provide matching funds for these grants (almost never 100% grants), our eight (8) town employees do not have any health insurance, life insurance or retirement plan. The Town of Temple would like to provide some benefits to city employees, but we are spending our limited revenues on compliance orders. I am sure the federal bureaucrats have ample health and life insurance and a great retirement program."

The situation in Temple is a microcosm of the mandates issue all over the country.

John Drury, mayor of the small town of Swaledale, Iowa, writes in his Blog for Iowa column: "The state and federal governments are being cautious about using the word consolidation when it comes to local governments, and especially cautious when they use that word about our schools. That word has been replaced by "regionalization". This is understandable; as legislators know, the people generally do not want consolidation and they may very well not want regionalization either. Surveys have shown that they want local governments to work for them and with them, they want to have a say in the decisions that are made. If their taxes are going up, or services are being cut, they want the opportunity to attend a city council meeting to let them know what they think. If the county roads they travel every day to get to work are in disrepair, they want to be able to go to the county supervisors and make a case for their repair."

If unfunded federal mandates are detrimental to local communities, unpopular with citizens, and illegal to impose, why does Congress continue regulating local governments? So they can make way for the privatization of governmental utilities and schools.

When conservative Republicans won Congress in 1994, their main intention was to get rid of federal oversight of corporations and hand over government largess to industry. Despite all their rhetoric about social values, the water into wine trick of public largesse into private profit was never far from their minds. It's why only Republican lobbyists were allowed access to power brokers in Congress for twelve years. The Republican majority wanted the goodies that the lobbyists had, and they didn't care who they had to screw to get them. That lobbyists were actively seeking to gut the federal infrastructure was just icing on the Republican victory cake.

UMRA was enacted mostly as a public relations stunt, to make it look like Congress was actually working to the favor of the electorate. The Republican leadership understood that no one was going to call them on breaking their own laws, so instead of ending unfunded mandates, they increased the pressure to impose more of them.

The Bush administration complied. Only Bush sought to cast a wider net, by bringing defense, social security, education, health insurance, and welfare under the rubric of privatization, and with Congress' help, nearly succeeded on all of those measures.

But now, Congress is in the hands of the esteemed members from the other side of the aisle. What are they doing about bringing unfunded mandates under control? Not a damned thing. The only thing that changed as far as unfunded mandates are concerned is whose palms are getting greased. In the meantime, small town administrators like Oliver and Drury have to find private grants from non-profit institutions to comply with the overload of federal regulations. And those that haven't found private grants are drowning in a sea of debt caused by bond issues, bank loans, and deferred public property leases. In many cases, property taxes have been increased to record levels, making it difficult for homeowners to continue living in these areas.

We the people have some very large expectations of our new Congress. But the last seven Congresses have willingly violated their own laws, leaving the electorate to fend for themselves in an economic mine field. Do we really believe they'll start thinking about us now?

The answer is no. Congressional Democrats and Republicans will continue the chatter on larger social issues, making us believe that those initiatives are imperatives. Our job is to let them know there is no greater issue than the survival of our own communities.
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Larry Sakin is a former non-profit medical organization executive and music producer. His writing can be found on, Blogcritics, OpEd News, The People's Voice, Craig's List and The Progressive magazine. He also advocates for literacy and (more...)
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