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To Relieve Unfunded Mandates and Enhance Local Autonomy: Enact a "Municipal Empowerment Act"

April 1995

Citation: 25 ELR 10205

Issue: 4

Author: Peter Lehner

It is generally the responsibility of cities and other local governments — not states or the federal government — to provide residents with essential services such as sewage treatment, garbage disposal, drainage, and drinking water. Provision of these services generally dates back hundreds of years and is a function of municipalities' role in protecting public health and averting nuisances.1 Today, however, the federal government often regulates delivery of these services, setting uniform baseline standards to protect public health and the interstate environment and avoid excessive interstate competition to attract businesses by relaxing standards.

Federal standards can be costly, and local governments have objected to the imposition of "unfunded federal mandates." They have also objected to federal control and the resulting lack of local autonomy. Too often, however, these cries against unfunded mandates and for local control have become calls for reducing federal standards. Unfortunately, such reductions would likely relax protections against environmental pollution and reduce the quality of life for the very citizens that local governments are charged to protect.

Peter Lehner is a Senior Attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Previously he served as Deputy Chief and Director of Environmental Prosecution, New York City Law Department, Environmental Law Division.

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