State lawmakers are beginning to understand the financial predicament they have created for county, city and township governments in Michigan by approving unfunded mandates — even though they’ve been doing so for decades and apparently in violation of the state’s Constitution.
Public Affairs Associates’ Becky Bechler recently shared that eye-opener with Kent County’s Legislative Committee. She also gave a reason for the sudden and unexpected enlightenment shown by Lansing legislators.
“Certainly the report from the mandate commission was pretty strong and effective. There is a problem with the Headlee amendment that it didn’t protect counties from unfunded mandates,” said Bechler, whose firm represents the county in the state capitol.
The Legislative Commission on Statutory Mandates met last year to review whether state government has adhered to the Headlee Amendment to the Michigan Constitution. The commission concluded in December that Lansing had consistently failed to comply with the amendment since voters approved it in 1978.
Headlee requires the state to fully fund mandates that it imposes on counties and municipalities. The amendment also prohibits the state from raising costs for local units when it introduces a new service.
An estimate made earlier this year placed the costs of mandates for local state governments at $2.2 billion, a tab that has become even more of a financial burden since Lansing cut revenue sharing to local units. Kent County, the city of Grand Rapids and the Grand Valley Metro Council, a coalition of 35 local units of government, each approved separate resolutions this year that called for state lawmakers to follow Headlee.
Bechler said another reason for Lansing’s newly-found awareness of the cost-shifting situation is a result of more county and municipal officials running for state office and winning.
“Also, many legislators are coming from county government. They understand from their previous jobs that there is a struggle and so we’re starting to get more and more understanding of those complicated matters. As the state pushes more responsibility on the counties, it’s putting further stress on them as well,” said Bechler.
The state House has begun responding to the mandate issue. The House Judiciary Committee has held hearings to create a panel that would include local government officials who would look into the issue and have the authority to recommend funding changes as a way to resolve the matter.
“Because of revenue-sharing cuts, they’re trying to find other revenue options for local governments,” said Bechler of House members.
State Rep. Marie Donigan, D-Royal Oak, has introduced a bill that would allow county and municipal voters to approve measures to tax alcoholic beverages by the glass. The bill faces heavy opposition from the beer, wine and food industries. But Donigan sees her legislation as a way a local government could make up for a loss in state revenue sharing.
“It’s likely to pass in the House, but in the Senate it has an uncertain future. Especially in the Senate, they seem to take great pause in any type of a tax even if it’s local government driven,” I think both of these will pass in the House, but I’m not sure about the Senate,” said Bechler of the panel and the local alcohol tax.
The recent gain in awareness at the state level of what unfunded mandates mean for local governments, though, may be lost by year’s end. It’s an election year and most lawmakers have reached the end of their terms. For instance, 30 of the Senate’s 38 members are term limited this year. Some will be out of office, while some will win other positions. But quite a few could be new next year and unaware of the mandate issue, especially with many voters in a mood to reject any candidate who has held office.
Bechler said the state’s 2011 general operating budget, which has a deficit of$1.8 billion, would have to be carved out sometime in June. Completing the spending plan by then would give current legislators who are seeking office enough time to campaign for their August primary elections.