Q: What will happen to the legislation to curb unfunded mandates next year, and what will the Republican takeover of Congress mean to the outcome?
A: We expect to at least start from where we left off, and we have that commitment from those that were involved in this issue. What impact the elections have on this, we're not quite sure; however, we think that will help our cause in the Senate. And then, on the House side, we think we have a good chance of getting this legislation passed early in the next Congress. I would hope [having a GOP-led Congress] would improve our chances. I would think it would on this particular issue.
With the Republicans in charge, there's also the question of a move to make it a stronger bill, including things like a two-thirds vote requirement on an unfunded mandate or requiring a point of order on the appropriation as well as the authorization.
Q: Would you support requiring a two-thirds majority vote to pass on an unfunded mandate and support requiring a specific vote to appropriate the funds to cover the mandate?
A: Yes, we would.
Q: Are you concerned that adding measures to strengthen the bill would trigger opposition from Democrats?
A: Even though now the power has shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans, we are still looking for a bipartisan approach on this. And we would want to see that worked out. I mean we very faithfully did that between the Democrats and the Republicans before, and we would want to continue to do that. And we had the support of the president. So we're hopeful we get this thing done quickly in the next session.
Q: One of the House Republicans' stated objectives is a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. Do you think that possibility makes the case for this bill?
A: It makes it even more important. In the days when we had general revenue sharing, there was lots of federal funding; it wasn't as urgent an issue because the moneys were coming. When all of that money started disappearing, it became a more urgent situation.
I think that the alternative of taking care of the mandates problem by merely providing more funding was not a very viable alternative prior to Nov. 8 this year, and certainly is less of a viable alternative now. I just don't believe that massive infusions of federal funding are on the horizon. That's not what the election was about, obviously.
Also, it's important to link this attempt to pass a balanced budget amendment. Because if, in effect, there are going to be reductions in federal spending, then the real danger for state and local governments and their citizens is that there would also be cost shifts if the funding is no longer there, so we really need to talk about some unfunded mandate bill that is very, very strong.
The fact of the matter is that people of this country have said that they're not willing to pay more taxes to accomplish all of these priorities, so somebody has now got to take the responsibility for priorilizing these policies, and Congress and the administration historically have avoided that responsibility. Now they're going to have to make it; they can't pass it off on someone else any longer.
Q: Why is the counties association pushing so hard for some kind of unfunded mandates legislation ?
A: There are two reasons. We have seen the trends of so-called decentralization over the last couple of years where the federal government has not financially supported the number of state and local programs that they did during the late '60s, early and mid-'70s. But at the same time we have not seen any lessening of mandated programs.
We have no problem with environmental programs, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Motor Voter, and the rest of them. What we have objected to is the fact that the federal government determines what the priorities for the country are, but takes no responsibility for funding those priorities.
Another perfect example, and one that really hits counties, is the immigration policies. Those are totally set by the federal government, yet they have a limited commitment to funding the consequences of it. The fiscal part is what really hurts state and local governments, because now we have to come up with funds to pay for these programs that are mandated from a higher level.
The other side is just good government. This is where you get into the accountability and responsibility argument of our federal system of government. The way it's set up now, everybody is pointing at everybody else when something goes wrong. There is no accountability. At the local level we have accountability. We have a fixed budget, fixed resources, and we've got to prioritize our priorities and policies within our particular jurisdiction. We're only asking the Congress and the federal government to do the same thing.
Q: How do states pay for unfunded federal mandates?
A: Our choices are either to raise taxes at the local level, primarily property taxes because that's our main source of revenue, or to cut other services to citizens within those communities. Since most counties in this nation face some sort of tax limit, the increasing of general taxes alternative is severely limited. The other alternative is to cut police services, fire services, other local programs that are supposed to be a priority for the citizens. It's maddening because a lot of local programs are suffering severely. So we're saying if [the federal government] believes that these are national priorities, then fund them.
Q: How did the coalition-supported unfunded mandates legislation come about?
A: One of the problems that we discovered with the pure "no money, no mandates" bill that was originally introduced is that it in effect had no teeth. There were no consequences if Congress didn't fund the program.
In the current bill, with respect to any mandate you have to take a vote, you had to provide the funding for a new mandate or a reduction in expenditure for some other program. If you did not do that, any member could raise a point of order and there would have to be a specific vote on the mandate before the bill could proceed. While that was not a pure "no money, no mandates" approach to the issue, what it did do was raise it as a political issue, so that members would really have to vote in a very conscious way if they intended to pass another unfunded mandate.
That was the campaign. We've always taken this issue to be a bipartisan issue, we've always tried to work this out so that we've got agreement of both parties.