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LAW ON FEDERAL MANDATES MAY NOT DO SUBSTANTIAL GOOD

Finally, after all these years, Congress has agreed to stop loading costly new burdens on state and local governments without sending along the money to pay for them. And President Clinton has signed the measure into law.

So should governors, mayors and local officials start to celebrate? Probably not.There are two major reasons why mandate legislation finally passed this year, and the persuasive power of the state and local lobby is not one of them.

The first reason is there were no new mandates on the horizon, no pending and politically popular regulatory legislation designed to make Congress look good while it slipped states and localities the tab.

The second reason is that Republicans needed the bill to buy state and local support for a balanced budget amendment. The mandates law, they argued, would inoculate states and localities from any massive cost shifting the feds might try to pull as they struggle toward deficit-free spending.

As a practical matter, however, it is by no means clear that the mandate relief law will do states and localities much good at all. It is not retroactive, so the massive costs of existing environmental mandates, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal requirements are still on the state and local tab, even as Congress moves to cut back the amount of money it sends to state and local governments.

As for preventing the burdens that might occur in the wake of a balanced-budget amendment - or other cost-cutting efforts - the mandates bill doesn't even address what could be the most expensive set of back-door mandates ever devised by Congress: the capping of Medicaid, welfare and other social service and health care spending that currently flows from Washington to state and local America.

Unless Congress has figured out how to solve social problems at some bargain-basement rate, the Republicans' proposed reduction in the federal role in health and human services would amount to a new state mandate wearing only a thin disguise.

For that matter, it is not clear how seriously Congress really takes its promise to steer clear of mandates in the future. At virtually the same time it was voting for mandate relief to states and localities, the House was drawing up a welfare bill and a crime bill featuring entirely new sets of restrictions. If states want to qualify for federal grants in such areas as crime and welfare, they may have to cut off unwed teen mothers who move out of the house or limit parole for criminals, among other restrictions.

Larry Naake, executive director of the National Association of Counties, calls these "morality mandates." So far, the 104th Congress seems to have a real penchant for them.

Nothing in the proposed law will alter the most important fiscal fact of life in the American governmental system: It is not possible to cut taxes and maintain existing services at the same time. When politicians promise to do that, what they generally mean is that they are hoping to push the burden of payment further down the line.