One year has elapsed since President Reagan promised to return powers to state governments. And so Maryland legislators had a rude awakening when they learnedlast week that Congress and the Reagan administration still haven't decided how to pass Washington's responsibilities to places such as Annapolis.
Senators and delegates who attended a hearing on the smallest of six federal block grants listened with disbelief as they were told that they must vote on the 1983 Maryland budget without knowing how much aid to expect from the federal government, or what guidelines to follow once they get it. Their frustration echoed that of state officials around the country in this first year of Reagan's "new federalism."
"I cannot comprehend that they Congress haven't even passed the fiscal '82 budget yet," said House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D.-Balt.). "To me that's incredible.
"Today I'm working on a transportation tax package and I'm trying to work out what the legislature's most responsible course of action should be," Cardin said. "But how can you expect state officials to make responsible decisions when you have a federal government that is totally insensitive to everything except what is happening at the federal level?"
Under the Reagan administration's new system of distributing federal money to states, 500 separate programs were combined into six block grants, each covering a specific area such as health, education, social services, community development and energy assistance.
States were to receive and distribute the federal money with fewer federal requirements. Programs could be maintained or cut -- but no new ones could be added -- according to the preferences of state officials.
But instead of the promised flexibility, Maryland officials have found only the headache of unwritten regulations, uncertain budget figures, and debates over whose authority will prevail at the state level when the money finally arrives.
Maryland stands to lose tens of millions of dollars in federal aid for human service programs because of budget cuts and the consolidation of programs into block grants. But until Congress acts, the exact appropriations for each grant will be unknown.
"It will be some place between $4 million, $6 million, $8 million and $10 million," state education secretary David W. Hornbeck said to legislators, reflecting the state's uncertainty over its share of the smallest block grant, which incorporates 42 programs covering such things as basic skills, consumer education, arts education, gifted students, libraries and alcohol and drug abuse.
"We will receive a cut of at least 25 percent and under certain figures as much as 55 to 60 percent. A very significant cut," Hornbeck said.
Some legislators said the huge budget cuts included in the block grants make the increased state responsibility an empty promise.
"They (the Reagan administration) are setting us up to take the heat for the cuts," said one Democratic delegate who asked not to be named. " Our job is the distribution of misery."
Just as distressing to some legislators was the discovery that their own role in the "new federalism" may not be as significant as expected.
"What is the legislative role in all of this?" one senator asked Hornbeck.
"I don't know, senator," Hornbeck replied. "The regulations have not been written. They are very vague. We're flying in the dark a bit here."
Startled by this information, legislators then learned that the state already had created a separate bureaucracy -- a 22-member advisory committee -- that will join the state department of education in determining how money from the smaller education grant will be spent. It will account for roughly one percent of the state's total spending on education.
The governor's only role in all of this, the legislators were told, was to appoint the committee.