[r54] Unfunded Mandates Pass the Buck to Locals (2/6/2009)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Start Date: 2/6/2009 All Day
End Date: 2/6/2009
We live with an economy based upon debt.  We are now seeing the consequences, because in the end, someone always pays. And, too often, that someone usually turns out to be the taxpayer and his family. 

Likewise, governments like to make laws that require action without including ways to pay for that action.  And the responsibility to fund these mandates gets pushed down to the lowest levels of government. 

Local governments bear the brunt of both state and federal mandates, and when taxes get too high or budgets run short, local governments are blamed for their lack of efficiency and thrift with taxpayer dollars. 

It's surprising how many unfunded mandates come before us each year in the general assembly, and it's disturbing how many of them actually pass. 

However, the laws themselves usually require actions that seem needed and good for society.  The most widely known example of an unfunded mandate with good intentions is a federal mandate:  No Child Left Behind.

NCLB sets standards for achievement that must be met, but doesn't provide the support or funding to help schools meet the goals.  States and local governments are forced to foot the bill.

There are other examples. Some county councils have decided not to provide pay increases for employees this year in an attempt to save taxpayer dollars. However, under state law, judges are allowed to create pay increases for their employees, such as probation officers.

Some judges decided to increase employees' pay, regardless of the county's policy.  This, too, is an unfunded mandate, because now these counties must provide this pay increase for these employees against the local councils' will and better judgment. 

At the state level, I am asked to vote for or against similar laws that are well-meaning but place the economic burden on local governments. 

Last week, I voted against House Bill 1331, a bill requiring cities, towns and counties to provide body armor to police officers.  The cause is a great one.  I would like nothing more than to provide this protection to our police officers; I just don't think the state has the right to force local governments to pay for it.  Still, the bill passed with a vote of 83-11.  Next, the Senate will decide whether or not to put this unfunded mandate on the governor's desk to be signed.

When I vote "No" on an unfunded mandate such as this one, I sympathize with the intentions of the bill's author as well as those legislators who voted to support it. 

In the end, however, it's up to the local governments to decide whether or not to take on the duties proposed in HB 1331 and other bills like it, because local governments fund and implement the provisions. 

At the heart of my stance on unfunded mandates is an understanding of the issues facing local governments throughout the state.  The Kernan-Shepard recommendations aim to consolidate and reform local government because they view many aspects of local governments as inefficient, antiquated and unnecessary.

However, local governments are subject to many factors outside of their control, including these unfunded mandates passed down from state and federal government. 

Ironically, some of the Kernan-Shepard recommendations actually will create more unfunded mandates for local governments, in particular, the move to eliminate local elected officials.  The removal of these officials will cost local government a lot of money due to greater personnel costs. 

Instead of voters selecting the most qualified, motivated person for the job, local governments will pay more to hire qualified everyday citizens to do the job. 

Unfunded mandates are often disguised as great ideas, but, in the end, they hurt local governments - and they hurt taxpayers. 

As this legislative session progresses, I will continue to oppose measures that further burden local governments, that government closest to the people (to the taxpayers)  in all our communities.