State Legislative Leaders Lobby Congress

 

State legislative leaders will take a break this week from the fierce budget battles being waged in many of their states to urge Congressional power-brokers and members of the Bush administration to help alleviate state fiscal woes by fully funding federal mandates for education and homeland security.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) estimates that about half of the states will be represented at its annual Leader to Leader Meeting in Washington, D.C. March 5-7. These lawmakers will push their agenda on state-federal issues like Medicaid, special education, welfare-reform and homeland security.

NCSL spokesperson Michael Bird said enrollment for the meeting was down by nearly 50 percent this year, probably due to travel cutbacks for legislators in cash-strapped states.

The state fiscal crisis is certain to dominate the meeting. Currently, states collectively face more than $100 billion in budget deficits this year and next, and state lawmakers will ask Congress to offer fiscal relief by fully funding federal mandates placed on states.

Under federal law, states are required to meet certain standards for a wide range of programs that are federally subsidized, but the subsidies often fail to cover the total cost of compliance.

NCSL estimates that unfunded federal mandates collectively cost states as much as $95 billion annually, primarily in special education, implementation of President Bush's education act, Homeland Security and election reform.

"We think that there should be a fiscal relief package that fills in the widening gaps on unfunded mandates and under-funded national expectations," Bird said.

Special education funding has been a particular source of irritation for state policy makers since Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975. NCSL estimates it would take $11 to $25 billion of additional funding for the federal government to live up to its promise to fund 40 percent of the program, which requires special education measures for public school students who are physically or mentally handicapped. The U.S. Department of Education also estimates that it would take more than $25 billion to fully fund special education.

On the homeland security front, Bush promised states $3.5 billion in anti-terrorism funding to help reimburse the costs of equipping state and local emergency workers, but Congress recently appropriated less than $1.2 billion. NCSL estimates that state and local governments need as much as $20 billion for homeland security measures.

States also want Congress to fully fund Bush's No Child Left Behind law. NCSL estimates that complying with the law will cost states up to $35 billion more than the $29 billion Congress appropriated.

NCSL also estimates that meeting election reform mandates in the 2002 Help America Vote Act will collectively put the states another $1 billion in the hole.

Bush has come out firmly against direct fiscal relief for cash-strapped states and recently rebuffed requests for state aid from the nation's governors, but state legislators will push Congressional leaders to give states a break by picking up the federal tab on these mandates.

Congressional leaders invited to the meeting include Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois; U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference; and U.S. Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut (D), Chuck Hagel of Nebraska (R) and Max Baucus of Montana (D).

State lawmakers will not meet with Bush but they are invited to the White House to meet with his chief of staff, Andrew Card, and members of the cabinet, including Sect. of Education Rod Paige, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman and Undersectretary of the Treasury, Peter Fischer. 

 
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