By Julie Anderson, Editor
An unfunded mandate is a state law or regulation that requires a local government to perform certain actions, with no money provided for fulfilling the requirements.
During the Regular Session of the 82nd Texas Legislature, Rep. Burt R. Solomons filed House Joint Resolution 56 (HJR 56) calling for the prohibition of unfunded mandates. Oldham County Judge Don R. Allred was there in person to offer his applause.
“This was an important piece of legislation for counties,” recalled Allred, a past president of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas (CJCAT). “Unfunded mandates from state and federal governments have been the single greatest factor in the increase of county budgets over the last several years.”
HJR 56, filed on Jan. 10, 2011, sought a constitutional amendment that would bar state lawmakers from imposing any mandates on local government without paying for them. The legislative language read: “No bill enacted by the Legislature on or after January 1, 2012, requiring a local government to establish, expand or modify a duty or activity that requires the expenditure of revenue by the local government shall be effective until and unless the Legislature appropriates or otherwise provides for the payment or reimbursement, from a source other than the revenue of the local government, or the costs incurred for the biennium by the local government in complying with the requirement.”
Companion legislation was filed by Sen. John Carona in the form of Senate Joint Resolution 17. Both resolutions would have applied to counties, cities, community college districts, hospital districts, and other special districts.
In addition, House Joint Resolution 89 filed by Rep. Garnet Coleman proposed an unfunded mandate amendment that applied only to counties.
Both HJR 56 and HJR 89 made it to the House Calendars Committee but not to the floor, and SJR 17 did not get a committee hearing on the Senate side. Had any of these resolutions passed through the Legislature, voters would have made the final call in the November 2011 election.
If At First You Don’t Succeed…
What may have been considered a defeat in 2011 was actually deemed by many as a sign of progress considering the statistics involved:
- Some 95 bipartisan authors and co-authors supported HJR 56, only five short of the two-thirds needed for House passage of a constitutional amendment.
- The majority of Texas counties passed resolutions in support of HJR 56, resolutions which played a major role in educating lawmakers.
Legislative analysts have long suggested that some bills take multiple presentations, session after session, before garnering the needed support. Resolutions similar to HJR 56 were again filed in the 83rd and 84th sessions; while they did not make it out of committee, lawmakers were once again exposed to the concept.
Fast forward to the most recent legislative session, the 85th which met in regular session Jan. 10-May 29, 2017, and in special session July 18-Aug. 15, 2017.
2016-17 CJCAT President Woodrow W. “Woody” Gossom Jr., Wichita County Judge, observed the hearing of House Joint Resolution 73 by Rep. DeWayne Burns which, like HJR 56 filed some six years earlier, called for a constitutional amendment to restrict unfunded mandates:
A JOINT RESOLUTION proposing a constitutional amendment to restrict the power of the legislature to mandate requirements on a municipality or county.
BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF TEXAS:
SECTION 1. Article III, Texas Constitution, is amended by adding Section 68 to read as follows:
Sec. 68. A law enacted by the legislature on or after January 1, 2018, that requires a municipality or county to establish, expand, or modify a duty or activity that requires the expenditure of revenue by the municipality or county is not effective unless the legislature appropriates or otherwise provides, from a source other than the revenue of the municipality or county, for the payment or reimbursement of the costs incurred for the biennium by the municipality or county in complying with the requirement.
SECTION 2. This proposed constitutional amendment shall be submitted to the voters at an election to be held November 7, 2017. The ballot shall be printed to permit voting for or against the proposition: “The constitutional amendment to restrict the power of the legislature from mandating unfunded requirements on a municipality or county.”
The bill received 95 of the 100 votes it needed on the second reading, and on the third reading secured “127 Yeas, 18 Nays, 1 Present, not voting.”
History was made as the resolution passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support. The resolution was then sent to the Senate and referred to the Business and Commerce Committee, where it remained without advancement. We now move on to the 86th Texas Legislature, which will convene Jan. 8, 2019.
As early as 2004, 253 counties had already passed resolutions denouncing unfunded mandates and supporting a constitutional amendment prohibiting them. For counties and cities that are at the statutory maximum tax rate, unfunded mandates give local governments no option but to cut services for their constituents. For those who are not capped out, unfunded mandates force tax increases.
“Unfunded mandates can have a devastating impact on county budgets and can limit a county’s ability to provide essential services by diverting funds already allocated to specific programs to the mandates sent down from the state,” declared Hays County Commissioner Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe, a CJCAT past president and current chairman of the CJCAT Commissioners Education Committee.
Prior to 2004, the CJCAT addressed unfunded mandates in a resolution on fiscal notes with the following clause, “THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas urges the Legislature of the State of Texas, in all future legislative sessions, to expand the legislative fiscal note process to fully recognize all costs of any legislation to counties and to adopt a constitutional amendment or legislation to prohibit such unfunded and/or under-funded mandates.”
In 2004, the CJCAT leadership crafted a resolution dedicated solely to the issue of unfunded mandates, which has been passed every year since, with a few modifications, by the State Association and its Regional Associations at their respective business meetings and has served as a key component of the CJCAT legislative platform. The following was passed by the CJCAT in September 2017:
Opposition to Unfunded Mandates
WHEREAS, Texas counties are responsible for the operation and management of many and various governmental programs as required or authorized by state law; and
WHEREAS, some county government programs are fully or partially supported with funds disbursed by the State of Texas pursuant to the state appropriations process; and
WHEREAS, the State of Texas, acting through the Texas Legislature or through a state agency or executive order, may enact laws or promulgate rules that have the effect of imposing mandatory financial obligations upon Texas counties; and
WHEREAS, the State of Texas, through the Texas Legislature or through a state agency or executive order, mandates that counties implement certain governmental programs or perform certain duties and obligations including financial commitments by a county to expend county funds in connection therewith; and
WHEREAS, during each regular session of the Texas Legislature, all state funds that support county programs are reviewed through the state appropriation process and by other state budgetary review systems; and
WHEREAS, the aforementioned review process may result in a reduction, or cessation, of state financial support of county government programs causing an unforeseeable disruption and reduction of the county budget and operations; and
WHEREAS, Texas counties cannot achieve reliable financial planning and the necessary bond ratings sufficient to support county-related obligations when the state mandates a new program that is not fully funded or under conditions where the state reduces or fully withdraws prior funding and disbursement for county government programs;
NOW, THEREFORE, the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas and its 254 current member counties do hereby resolve that for the foregoing reasons, it is in the best interests of Texas counties and their taxpayers to support and favor the passage of legislation in the form of an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Texas that would expressly prohibit the imposition of a mandatory governmental program on Texas counties, whether by an act of the Texas Legislature or a state agency or by executive order, unless the State of Texas has fully funded and disbursed all necessary funds to enable Texas counties to operate said governmental program.
The Association has provided a sample resolution for individual counties to pass which includes the text above with a modification to the last graph as follows:
NOW THEREFORE, the Commissioners Court of ______________ County, Texas does hereby resolve that for the foregoing reasons, it is in the best interests of Texas counties and their taxpayers to support and favor the passage of legislation in the form of an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Texas that would expressly prohibit the imposition of a mandatory governmental program on Texas counties, whether by an act of the Texas Legislature or a state agency or by executive order, unless the State of Texas has fully funded and disbursed all necessary funds to enable Texas counties to operate said governmental program.
“The primary legislative objective of the State Association is the prevention of unfunded mandates,” emphasized Jim Allison, general counsel to the CJCAT. “Legislators have an unending supply of ‘good ideas’ without funding. Every session, we successfully defeat numerous bills with proposed unfunded mandates. Despite our efforts, some unfunded mandates are enacted.”
The financial burdens placed upon counties by the Legislature in recent decades have become onerous for local property taxpayers, either causing local property tax hikes or reductions in services. The approximate percent of the county budget consumed by unfunded mandates will vary from 50 percent to 70 percent, Allison reported.
In order to paint a clearer picture – complete with facts and figures – of the cost of unfunded mandates, several county associations joined together to develop a comprehensive survey and follow-up report. The 2016 Unfunded Mandates Survey was conducted online by the Texas Association of Counties in cooperation with the Texas Association of County Auditors, the Conference of Urban Counties and the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas during the summer and fall of 2016.
This survey report was released last year as a communication tool to help explain the cost of unfunded and underfunded mandates on property taxpayers. In the coming months, counties will be contacted and survey data will be updated in preparation for the 86th Session of the Texas Legislature, said Tim Brown, senior analyst with the Texas Association of Counties County Information Program, which helped prepare the survey report. The 2016 study is available at http://bit.ly/unfunman2EvqW3v.
The Task at Hand
The CJCAT and its Legislative Committee continue to keep a watchful eye on interim studies, attend related meetings and hearings, and lay groundwork in preparation for the 2019 legislative session. However, the task at hand – supporting legislation to restrict unfunded mandates – requires both a collective effort in Austin combined with individual work on the home front, emphasized CJCAT President Alma Moreno, San Patricio County Commissioner. When it comes to individual efforts, here is a list for consideration:
- Pass resolutions calling for the prohibition of unfunded mandates at the local level and make sure copies of these resolutions land directly in the hands of lawmakers.
- Ensure your county responds to forthcoming requests for data necessary to update the 2016 Unfunded Mandates Survey in preparation for the 86th Texas Legislature.
- Establish regular contact with your individual senators and representatives, not only to deliver your copies of local resolutions, but to visit in person about unfunded mandates and how they specifically impact your county’s ability to provide local services.
- Do not assume your constituents or your legislators understand the innerworkings of county government; be prepared to have an open discussion about the roles and responsibilities of Commissioners Courts and the county/state partnership. Along with engaged conversation, offer resources to both your constituents and lawmakers on how county government works. For example, the April issue of County Progress included an educational article, What You Wish Your Constituents Knew About County Government, the County Budget, and the Property Tax.
“We are 254 County Strong!” shared Moreno. “If only two members of each county in our Grand State become active, what a message over 500 Judges and Commissioners could send!” she continued. “Let’s continue to keep Texas county government strong!”