Counties and cities are less than enthusiastic about President Bush's proposal to shift $15 billion worth of programs to the states.
They worry the states will siphon off federal money for their own administrative costs, allowing less to trickle down to counties and cities for services. And they worry states may impose burdensome regulations that Bush is trying to avoid from the federal government with the shift."We prefer the devil we know - that's the federal government. How adamant we were surprised some people at the White House," said Republican Salt Lake County Commissioner Mike Stewart, who is also president of the National Association of Counties.
He and his counterparts at the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities and Towns met with White House Chief of Staff John Sununu and Utah native Roger Porter, Bush's economic and domestic policy adviser, to express such concerns.
"A lot of it is the fear of the unknown, and a bad experience we had with states on the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA)," Stewart told the Deseret News after the meeting.
"When JTPA was reauthorized in the mid-1980s, it had very simple regulations from the federal government - maybe two or three pages. But when it went to the states, they often overlaid 20 or 30 more pages of regulations.
"It siphoned away a lot of the money for administration and was used to justify their targeted needs - not the needs identified by local communities," Stewart said.
Another example that makes counties wary, Stewart said, is how funding for mental-health services was handled after it was turned over to the states a decade ago.
"There was supposed to be 80-20 funding between the states and counties, with the states paying 80 percent. But now in Salt Lake County, the split is more like 60-40. We have picked up 20 percent of the costs that should be the state's share because it won't fund it," Stewart said.
Stewart said he told Sununu, who is a former governor of New Hampshire, "Not all of the governors are as good as you were. Some of them are evil" - although he was quick to add that he wasn't referring to Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter either.
The counties and cities are especially worried about possibly shifting to the states control of community development block grants, which are used to improve low-income neighborhoods with everything from housing projects to new parks and attracting new businesses.
For example, Stewart said Salt Lake County has used $600,000 in such funds to attract $10 million worth of investment in Magna and Union by creating incentives to attract new businesses there.
About 70 percent of the federal money in that program goes directly to larger counties and cities, bypassing the states. The states receive about 30 percent to divide among rural areas.
"To put the states in charge, we think we would see more siphoning off of funds for administration and less for programs," Stewart said. He also worries states may try to restrict use of funds more than the federal government now does.
However, Stewart added that despite their concerns, cities and counties might support general shifting of programs if they could exempt community development block grants and keep them with the federal government.
Stewart said Sununu asked the counties and cities to come back with a proposal in two weeks about the minimum "firewall" they would need to offer their support and keep the entire proposal from going down in flames.