The Office of Management and Budget has unveiled its final guidelines--and accompanying rules for 28 government agencies and departments--on how the federal government will deal with state and local governments affected by programs involving everything from dams and highways to health planning.
Part of the idea is to give smaller governments a better chance to holler "Uncle" when they object to what the federal government wants to build, the way it wants to manage its lands or the strings it wants to attach to a particular form of aid. Under the guidelines, the process is not supposed to vary, no matter which agency initiates the project.
Equally important, from the OMB's point of view, is the streamlining of communications between the federal government and its local, regional and state counterparts. Under the new rules, states are supposed to designate one state office or official as the contact point for its comments on pending projects, and are encouraged to establish clear priorities so federal officials know what matters to the states.
In a revision prompted by local officials' suggestions, the office that passes along a state's view of a project must include copies of local or regional comments, if they differ from the state's.
The federal agency involved must then "accommodate" the comment or explain in writing why it won't. The rules, however, do not define "accommodate."
Under the old "A-95" process being supplanted by the new rules--a process that took its name from an OMB circular--comments on pending projects were made through federally approved local agencies and a federally prescribed process. Now it will be up to the states to decide whether they want to object to a proposed federal project and how they gather possible local and regional objections.
Some regional officials, however, are concerned about the number of programs that will be exempted from the new rules, particularly Housing and Urban Development Department housing subsidies and loan guarantees.
Almost identical preambles accompanying each agency's coordination rule say that the coordination process is not designed to provide a new basis for judicial challenge to federal actions. There is no appeals process built into the new guidelines.
Harold I. Steinberg, the OMB's associate director for management, hailed the effort as "a clear indication that federalism is alive and well. We are going to be far more responsive to the desires and needs of state and local governments."
At an informal conference with reporters this week, Steinberg said the OMB thinks the states will delegate a lot of coordination responsibility to local governments or area-wide agencies, such as the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments.
The new rules, published in last Friday's Federal Register, are to take effect Oct. 1.