Three Things the Legislature and the Governor Can Do About Mandates
For counties (and cities and special districts), the situation with mandates is getting out of control. Deferrals, suspensions, and modifications at the state level keep local officials’ heads spinning. Counties are offering three suggestions to the Legislature and the Governor to stop the madness.
For purposes of this discussion, we are focusing on post-1975 mandates, those that meet the Constitutional test for state reimbursement.
(To answer the question, “what is a mandate?”, the Legislative Analyst’s Office presentations are excellent. The Commission on State Mandates, the quasi-judicial body that is responsible for determining if a new statute is a reimbursable mandate, outlines the mandate determination process on its website.)
Starting in the early 2000’s, during the last budget crisis, the state began to defer payments to local agencies for reimbursable mandates. Essentially, the state did not appropriate funds to reimburse the mandated costs; instead, it started a running tab of outstanding mandate reimbursement payments owed to counties, cities, and special districts. These mandate payments, referred to as the pre-2004-05 deferred payments, are estimated at about $1 billion and are required to be repaid to local agencies over a period of time. The state has not made a payment on this debt in years.
After the passage of Proposition 1A (2004), the Legislature is no longer able to defer mandate payments; its only choices are to fund or suspend. Mandate suspension means that the mandate is not funded nor is it in effect for the budget year; the local agency can perform the mandate at its own cost or stop providing the mandate for that year. In 2009-10, the state suspended 25 mandates for the first time, effectively putting those mandates on “pause” for the fiscal year. (About 26 mandates have been suspended for many years.) Twenty mandates are in effect (primarily in the areas of elections, property tax administration, Brown Act, and public safety). The Governor has proposed generally the same suspensions for the 2010-11 fiscal year.
Even though it is readily apparent that California cannot fund the mandates it currently has (not to mention the 27 near-mandates in the determination pipeline at the Commission), there are a number of legislative measures introduced in 2010 that will require local governments to provide a new program or higher level of service. These measures, while well-intended, place new service burdens on local agencies that are someday likely to become reimbursable mandates. In some cases, the measures include language authorizing local agencies fund the new program or service with a new fee, without indicating who will be paying such a fee or considering the adequacy of a fee.
All of this has resulted in a situation in which local agencies are financing programs and services without appropriate reimbursement as required by the Constitution, where local governments are challenged to manage the on-again, off-again nature of programs and services, and where locals must spend a great deal of time and energy educating well-intentioned bill authors as to why mandates (and their associated disclaimers) just aren’t appropriate at this time.
Here are a few suggestions for the Legislature to begin to address the crazy, convoluted, and confusing mandate situation.
Avoid passing new mandates. This seems like a no-brainer, sure, but it must be said. The Legislature and the Governor should place a moratorium on new mandates until the state’s fiscal problems allow it to pay the mandate tab and provide annual mandate funding. It is as simple as that.
Repeal suspended mandates. Mandate suspensions put local agencies in an untenable position. Either put up local dough to fund the program that has already been built from the ground up or cut the program outright and hope that you don’t get sued (or that the Legislature doesn’t change its mind the following year). If the mandates aren’t important enough to warrant payment, even in a difficult fiscal environment, repeal them. Wipe the slate clean. Local agencies can choose to fund the service or program, taking into account their own financial situation and community needs.
Suspend pipeline mandates. Twenty-seven near-mandates are awaiting final action at the Commission on State Mandates. Test claims continue to be submitted to the Commission. Counties, cities, and districts are doing things and incurring costs for programs and services that are likely to be reimbursable someday. Just suspend these programs/services already. Allow local agencies the option of saving money on these programs until the Commission makes a final determination.
It is time to let rationality prevail and put an end to the mandate madness.
The California State Association of Counties is celebrating National County Government Month during the week of April 19 – 23, 2010. During the week, CSAC will be tweeting, blogging and posting FaceBook information on county services, with a special daily focus. Monday –Agriculture and Natural Resources, Tuesday –Housing, Land Use and Transportation, Wednesday –Administration of Justice , Thursday – Health and Human Services, Friday - Government Finance and Operations.