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State, Local Government Look to Curb Unfunded Mandates

Lawmakers are looking for ways to reduce the effects of budget cuts on local governments — community colleges, school districts, cities and counties — by easing the unfunded mandates the state imposes on them.

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Lawmakers are looking for ways to ease the effects of budget cuts on local governments — community colleges, school districts, cities and counties — by easing the unfunded mandates the state imposes on them. And while representatives of those entities are glad to see any relief, they see many of the impending cuts as just another form of the same thing.

Unfunded mandates — when a smaller government entity has to spend its money to comply with requirements handed down by a bigger one — take on many different forms, from tuition waivers at community colleges, training requirements on city police, fire and emergency personnel that cost cities money, to requirements on the type of font that public schools use for notices in newspapers.

Here's one: Counties are required by the state to provide indigent criminal defendants with attorneys, according to Elna Christopher, spokeswoman for the Texas Association of Counties. In fiscal year 2010, counties spent nearly $165 million providing those attorneys. The state has a grant system to reimburse the counties, but only contributed $30 million.

Besides that, Christopher said, counties are also burdened with state mandates that require them to pay for elections, for instance, or to keep jail standards and provide health care for inmates in county jails, with little or no reimbursement from the state.

“Counties are not saying these programs are bad. They are worthwhile programs, but the state ought to pay for them,” Christopher said. 

Gov. Rick Perry, whose been enthusiastically critical of federal mandates, created a task force to find ways to "ease the burden" on local governments. The recommendations should be in front of the governor soon, his aides said.

And Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, wants to amend the Texas Constitution to block the state from ordering new mandates without providing the money to pay for them.

While Christopher and others would be glad to see an end to true unfunded mandates, they say that the drastic cuts under consideration at the Capitol right now represent unstated, unfunded mandates.

Texas cities face a number of state mandates, and they also raise money for the state through taxes and fees, said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. The looming budget cuts will make it worse, with cities picking up duties the state will no longer finance.

“If you cut hospital district funding or medical clinic funding, which current budgets would do, you are going to have a lot of people calling city EMS,” Sandlin said. 

Christopher said that if the state pulls back its funding of community health services, larger numbers of the mentally ill will end up in jail. Not only is it not the best facility for them, but it costs up to $137 a day to care for them there.

Texas school districts face a long list of state mandates, some of which are worthwhile and some burdensome, said Dax Gonzalez, spokesman for the Texas Association of School Boards. And the combination of those and budget cuts will prevent the districts from providing the services people in the community expect, he said.

Gonzalez said the state should make local options of some of the state requirements. Flexibility wouldn't make up for the lack of funding, but it would help take away some of the sting from the budget cuts.

“Leave it up to the districts to say if they feel that a mandate is worthwhile and if they can find funding for it, let them do it,” he said.

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