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Just when it seemed the election-year rhetoric had hit a lull, old thread-bare arguments have been pulled into service again in the fight over public housing.

The House last week passed a measure that would replace the decay and ruin of a 60-year-old public housing law with a block grant program in which local agencies would decide how best to serve the poor. Ninety-one Democrats voted with the Republicans for this change, but the 102 who voted against it were quick to label it as another disastrous example of heartless GOP leadership.Modern political discourse seldom lends itself to a dispassionate review of the facts. In truth, the nation's public housing system is not as thoroughly bad as its harshest critics contend. So-called "section 8" housing has helped many poor people rebuild their lives away from ghettos. But, overall, the system isn't working, and it isn't flexible enough. Many big-city projects are cruel and vicious places.

Understandably, local leaders are tired of sitting by powerlessly.

Utah officials already are considering whether to join five other Western states in a housing consortium. The states would pool resources, set their own rules for participation and avoid irrelevant federal regulations geared toward densely populated Eastern states.

As the plan has been proposed, it would allow generous time-limits for participation in public housing, with the idea that people are to be moved back into self-sufficiency. The elderly and handicapped would be exempt from these limits. All this plan needs is a loosening of federal restrictions.

Local control makes sense for many reasons. Not only would the rules better fit the circumstances, local residents would develop a greater sense of responsibility toward the poor in their own areas.

The bill that passed last week is good for another reason. It included an amendment by Rep. Enid Greene, R-Utah, to give $440,000 to West Jordan - money that was lost in the confusion over whether the suburb had reached a population of 50,000 in the most recent census. Such a grant would help a number of local organizations cope with the needs in Salt Lake County's southwest section.

The Senate already passed a more limited housing overhaul bill, and negotiators now will begin the arduous task of finding compromise.

Common sense seldom wins in partisan fights. Let's hope a locally controlled public housing system can be made to appear as it truly is - the ally of all.