Shoot the Messenger

T he Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) is probably one of the least known victims of federal downsizing, but the effect of its elimination at the end of September 1996 was significant. Without the ACIR, local, state, and federal officials have less contact with each other, and there is a shortage of data about the impact of federal programs on state and local governments.

At a time when local and state governments are being called upon to pay for more of their services with less support from Washington, the only government agency charged with evaluating the impact of government policies and programs on states and localities has been zeroed out. Though the ACIR was resuscitated last spring to conduct a study for the government's commission on gambling, it is now a mere shadow of its former self, with little hope of being permanently reauthorized.

From its creation in 1959 through 1996, the commission provided a wealth of information about the fiscal well-being of state and local governments. Often the ACIR was the only place people interested in urban policy could look to for data about city versus suburban fiscal resources. The commission's members included governors, mayors, state legislators, county officials, and members of Congress—all of whom served two-year terms. As a nonpartisan group, the commission earned a reputation for producing accurate and unbiased reports. "They were scrupulous in terms of getting people from both parties and all levels of government to literally just shine a light about what is going on," according to David Liebschutz, the associate director of the Center for the Study of the States at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in New York.

ACIR studies took a comparative look at state and local patterns of spending and taxation. By spotlighting fiscal disparities, ACIR became a force for greater equalization of resources. The commission was the first government agency to support the idea of general revenue sharing. The ACIR also raised awareness about the plight of cities by revealing the financial isolation of urban areas. And many experts, such as Oliver Oldman, a professor emeritus at Harvard University's law school, believe that the ACIR had an enormous impact on the operation of state and local governments because it enabled them to operate with an understanding of each other's fiscal resources.

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But during the 1980s, as the federal debt and deficit grew—and as Ronald Reagan implemented his so-called new federalism—the ACIR fell out of political favor. By the mid-1980s, House Republicans began targeting the commission for elimination. "We were on a list of a number of small agencies that it was felt the government could do without," explains Bruce McDowell, the ACIR's director of government policy research at the time it closed down, so "ACIR lost about half of its funding and staff during the eighties." In the late 1970s, the ACIR had a staff of 50. By 1994, that number had dwindled to 14.

The elimination of ACIR reports has left a void—both of data and of intergovernmental communication. "We were an ombudsman and a significant provider of information," says Charles Griffiths, the current executive director of the commission, adding that "we still get requests for the old publications." Finally, it should be noted that not only did the ACIR gather and distribute valuable information, but it did so for free. The few groups that have stepped forward to carry on with the publication of certain ACIR studies will now charge for the reports, meaning the information will reach fewer people. And without a federal agency to publish the data, state and local officials will be further isolated from Washington at the very time they need it the most.


See also Can Cities Escape Political Isolation?, by Karen Paget: As federal funding dwindles, we need new economic arrangements and political coalitions to unite city and suburb.

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