By Tim Carpenter
A national bipartisan organization of state legislators led by a Kansan is nervous about the possibility of Congress rolling back federal spending without eliminating corresponding policy mandates on states.
Lawmakers from around the country serving in the National Conference of State Legislatures are keen to influence U.S. representatives and senators embarking this fall on a high-stakes debate about how best to cut $1.2 trillion in federal appropriations.
The topic of unfunded mandates and a handful of other points of emphasis were raised with congressional leaders by NCSL in a letter signed by Kansas state Sen. Steve Morris, a farmer from southwest Kansas who holds down duties as president of the national advocacy organization.
"Unfunded mandates have been an issue for a long time," Morris said. "Requirements without funding. That's certainly a possibility."
Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said Morris was correct to be wary of federal officials dumping more responsibility on states.
He said the situation highlighted the folly of a decision by Gov. Sam Brownback to return $31.5 million to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services earmarked for development of an exchange system to help Kansans research, enroll and buy health insurance to comply with federal law.
"That was a funded mandate," Hensley said.
NCSL member committees requested Congress reshape the budget in ways that didn't grind down federal investment in transportation programs to improve highways, bridges, airports, harbors and rail systems. These initiatives are capable of putting people to work throughout the nation, Morris said, but not enough of the recent federal stimulus funding found its way to infrastructure targets.
"One of the big disappointments I've seen in the last three or four years," Morris said.
Other areas of concern to NCSL:
■ Medicaid: Continue funding to states and develop a trigger to expand spending amid economic downturns.
■ Sales tax: Improve fairness of collections on Internet sales.
■ Public safety: Designate federal auction of communications spectrum to support local first responders.
■ "Pre-emption:" Uphold states' authority in areas of medical malpractice and public employee retirement systems.
Brownback, a Topeka Republican, said broad reductions in federal funding would be applied to programs throughout the state government.
"Almost every federal official I've talked with recently is talking about budget cuts in their area," the governor said. "Everybody is going to take a cut."
Brownback, a former U.S. senator, said he was concerned more with precisely how federal officials filtered reductions down to Kansas. Some deductions from federal aid, he said, could be more damaging to the state than others.
Federal crop insurance, for example, holds greater significance to the state's farm economy than other potential reductions in agriculture, the governor said.
Brownback said the best approach would be for the joint House-Senate committee responsible for developing a budget-reduction plan to determine financial targets in each area of government. Regular congressional committees can best determine how to trim spending, he said.
That conforms to the thinking of U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, who is apprehensive modification of U.S. Department of Agriculture programs could damage Kansas.
"The federal debt and deficit are out of control," he said. "All USDA programs should be under consideration in a budget review, and the agriculture committees with the best experience and knowledge of those programs should lead in that effort."
U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said $650 million in federal funding was hanging in the balance for the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility. The new government laboratory on the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan would be built to conduct research on animal diseases capable of being transmitted to humans. If operational as planned in 2015, it would replace an aging facility in New York state.
"I think it moves ahead," the congressman said. "You've got to do the research."