Lobbyists Are Split Over Unfunded-Mandates Bill

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Education lobbyists are split over a bill aimed at limiting unfunded mandates placed on states by the federal government--although the proposal apparently would have little immediate impact on schools.

The National School Boards Association supports the bill, saying that local districts spend billions of their own dollars doing what the federal government tells them to do, most notably testing for asbestos and providing services to disabled students.

Other education groups, like the National Education Association, oppose the plan, saying that safety and some educational services would be in jeopardy without the force of federal law.

The proposed "unfunded mandate reform act of 1995" moved quickly through committees in each chamber last week, and the Senate began floor debate. Floor votes are expected on both sides of Capitol Hill this week.

The bill is a prominent item in the House Republicans' "Contract With America." It also has big implications for the effort to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring a balanced federal budget, as governors' support for the amendment hinges on assurances that it will not spur Congress to pass on the cost of programs through mandates that are not accompanied by federal dollars. (See related story )

Like the balanced-budget amend~ment, the unfunded-mandates bill is primarily a Republican initiative, but has some Democratic backing as well.

While four of six Democrats on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee voted against the bill, two joined the panel's nine Republicans in approving it. The vote in the Senate Budget Committee was unanimous. The House Governmental Reform and Oversight Committee approved it on a voice vote.

"This legislation will drastically affect every man, woman, and child in the country," said Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, the ranking minority member of the Governmental Affairs Committee and a supporter of the measure.

Estimates Required

The bill would require the Congressional Budget Office to estimate the cost of federal legislation to state and local governments.

If the estimated cost were greater than $50 million a year, Congress would have to provide funding, drop the mandate, or waive the funding requirement by a majority vote.

The C.B.O. would also estimate costs to the private sector for legislation that would cost more than $200 million. The federal government would not have to cover that cost, however.

Because the bill is prospective and does not affect existing mandates, it is not clear just how much it would save states.

It also exempts legislation that "enforces constitutional rights of individuals; or establishes or enforces any statutory rights that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, national origin, or handicapped or disability status."

The bill's lack of retroactivity would mean that the most significant unfunded mandates for schools-(See Education Act--would remain in force. The I.D.E.A. might be considered a civil-rights law under the second exemption, as well.

And many other federal requirements that schools find onerous--such as Title I testing mandates--are imposed as a condition of receiving federal aid under a particular program, a device lawmakers could continue to use.

Still, forcing Congress to look at the real costs of its decisions is a good precedent to set, and could forestall some future mandates, said Boyd W. Boehlje, the president of the National School Boards Association and a member of the Pella, Iowa, school board.

The impact of not passing the bill, Mr. Boehlje testified at a joint Senate hearing, could be "an enormous fiscal drain" on local systems complying with mandates that come without funding.

He cited the I.D.E.A. and its guarantee that children with disabilities receive a "free and appropriate public education," a mandate that can be an enormous burden for districts with severely handicapped students.

When the law was passed in 1975, Congress pledged to foot 40 percent of the bill. But it currently pays only 7 percent of the cost, and has never paid more than 9 percent.

Mr. Boehlje said that translates to a contribution of $2 billion per year from the federal government and almost $27 billion each year from local and state resources.

Asbestos Law Cited

He also said that asbestos removal has cost schools millions of dollars since a 1984 law required them to test for the hazardous substance. For example, the Houston school district has spent about $46 million on asbestos removal with "virtually no federal assistance," he said.

But 93 groups that lobby for civil rights, people with disabilities, education, and other public-interest concerns drafted a letter opposing the bill, calling it "an attack on federal protections and safeguards."

Groups signing the letter included the Council for Exceptional Children, the American Association on Mental Retardation, the Children's Defense Fund, and the N.E.A.

Moreover, the I.D.E.A. and the Americans With Disabilities Act should not even be considered unfunded mandates, said Pamela Gillet, the president of the Virginia-based Council for Exceptional Children.

"We think of I.D.E.A. as a basic, fundamental civil right that every child with a disability is entitled to a free and appropriate public education," she said.

Ms. Gillet said she is particularly concerned that while the basic grant program is permanently authorized, some I.D.E.A. programs, such as the one serving infants and toddlers, are due to be reauthorized this year and it is unclear if reauthorizing an existing program would make it subject to the limits on unfunded mandates. (See related story

Vol. 14, Issue 17

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