Washington taxpayers will be providing a record $45 billion in revenues to state lawmakers for 2017-19 (up 15 percent over the prior state budget). With historic levels of money flowing to Olympia, it may sound strange to hear that state lawmakers are imposing more unfunded mandates on local governments.
Voters have passed laws saying that unfunded mandates are illegal in Washington state, so it’s not surprising that local officials across the state are threatening to sue since they face hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded state demands. What is going on?
Commenting on his growing frustration with unfunded mandates and the lack of understanding from the legislature, Lincoln County Commissioner Scott Hutsell recently told me: “We are providing these services on behalf of the State. I think sometimes we get treated like foreign countries.”
One example of the harm done by unfunded mandates is diverting resources away from public safety at the local level. Forced to triage local spending to meet the burden of unfunded state mandates, Lincoln County is now not able to provide 24-hour sheriff coverage on its roads. This problem is not unique to Lincoln County.
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In an interview with TVW’s “Inside Olympia,” Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington Association of Counties, confirmed that 13 counties are stretched so thin because of unfunded mandates that they are not able to provide their communities with 24-hour police coverage.
Based on ballot measures adopted by voters in 1979 and 1993, however, unfunded mandates on local government should not be occurring.
Among the requirements of Initiative 62, adopted in 1979, was to “prohibit the legislature from requiring local governments to offer new or expanded services unless the costs are paid by the state.”
Initiative 601, passed in 1993, also bars the Legislature “from imposing responsibility for new programs or increased levels of service on any political subdivision of the state, unless the subdivision is fully reimbursed by specific appropriation by the state.”
This ban on state lawmakers from imposing unfunded mandates is in the state code as RCW 43.135.060.
The intent of voters was clear when they passed I-62 and I-601. State spending and taxes should be restricted, and local governments protected so lawmakers would not simply cost-shift programs and expect local officials to raise taxes instead. Unfortunately, that is exactly where we find ourselves today.
Rather than comply with state law that prohibits unfunded mandates, the response from lawmakers is to give local governments new taxing authority or reduce limits on property taxes. State lawmakers then expect local officials to raise taxes to pay for services demanded by the state.
Perhaps Washington taxpayers need stronger protections. In 1995, New Jersey voters adopted the “State Mandate, State Pay” constitutional amendment. It has an enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance: “The Legislature shall create by law a Council on Local Mandates. The Council shall resolve any dispute regarding whether a law or rule or regulation issued pursuant to a law constitutes an unfunded mandate.”
In our state, there are no consequences when state lawmakers violate the law and impose unfunded mandates on local communities. This is creating the exact situation voters wanted to stop when they adopted I-62 and I-601. The goal was to force fiscal discipline on state lawmakers while preventing costs and pressure for tax increases to be shifted to local governments.
Especially in this time of record state revenues and spending, the answer to unfunded mandates is not tell local officials to raise taxes to pay for them, but instead to prioritize rising state spending within existing revenue while complying with the law. The ongoing failure of lawmakers to do so, however, shows that additional protections against unfunded mandates are needed for local officials and taxpayers.
Jason Mercier is the Government Reform director for Washington Policy Center, a non-profit research organization with offices in Tri-Cities, Spokane, Seattle and Olympia. Online at www.washingtonpolicy.org