Unfunded mandates, generally speaking, make for bad public policy [Editorial]

In what is probably a prelude to an expected run for governor, Harford County Executive David R. Craig resumed last week his complaints about unfunded mandates.

To be fair, Craig has been outspoken on the subject for many years, both as a Havre de Grace mayor and when he served in the Maryland General Assembly. Lately, however, complaints about unfunded mandates have gained value as currency in certain political circles, notably among fiscal conservatives, especially those in the Republican Party.

For those not up on political hot buttons, unfunded mandates are laws enacted by the federal or state governments that require governments at the next level down to spend money. Typically, such laws have broad-based general public support, but not so much support when the costs are revealed.

For example, if Congress passes a law to cut pollution going into the Chesapeake Bay and other sensitive waterways for the purpose of improving commercial fisheries stocks, it's hard to find people to express opposition. When cutting pollution translates to improving stormwater management ponds to keep runoff pollution from getting into the water, the tone of the conversation shifts. Then, when the federal government requires the state or county to spend money on stormwater management, officials in local government cry "foul."

Curiously, local and state governments have no trouble applying for grant money, especially for things like roadway improvements, business development or, in bad times, disaster aid.

It's not much of a mystery how this situation has evolved. In the post-World War II era and well into the 1970s, under administrations of both major parties, the federal government tended to coax state and local governments into making policy changes by offering federal money in exchange. The 55 mph national speed limit is an example of how this worked, or, more accurately, didn't work.

As a gas saving measure, the federal government tied the allocation of federal highway money to whether states enacted a 55 mph speed limit. Most did, though many drivers grumbled and enforcement was erratic.

The federal policy has long since been rescinded, though federal highway money these days isn't the incentive it once was.

Increasingly, over the past 25 to 30 years, the trend has been away from federal financial incentives and more in the direction of enacting orders and obliging states to foot the bill. While state legislators can often be depended on to complain about federal mandates, they're often a good deal more cavalier about state mandates that have to be paid for by the counties.

The degree to which this is good or bad public policy is a matter worthy of discussion. It makes perfect sense that a government that enacts a policy should also be responsible for paying to implement it.

There is an argument, however, that certain issues that affect areas larger than single states need to be backed by the authority of the federal government.

Either way, elected officials need to be a good deal more responsible about spending money collected by another government.

The likelihood of that becoming a political reality, however, is slim. After all, governments tend to be more than a little cavalier about spending money that belongs to other people. They're not alone, of course, just more practiced – and by no means bashful – at doing it.

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