Past Efforts Lay Groundwork for Future Progress
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. 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 85th Texas Legislature, 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.
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.
The 86th Texas Legislature convened on Jan. 8, 2019. Once again, Burns filed legislation, this time HJR 30. Unfortunately, the bill did not advance out of the State Affairs Committee.
In preparation for the 87th Session, which is already underway, Rep. Hugh Shine filed the following on Nov. 12, 2020:
HJR No. 32
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, 2022, 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 2, 2021. The ballot shall be printed to permit voting for or against the proposition: “The constitutional amendment to restrict the power of the legislature to mandate unfunded requirements on a municipality or county.”
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 County 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 underfunded mandates.”
In 2004, the CJCAT passed a resolution dedicated solely to the issue of unfunded mandates. This resolution has been passed every year since, with a few modifications, by the State Association and its Regional Associations at their respective business meetings. This resolution has served as a key component of the CJCAT legislative platform. The following was passed by the CJCAT in October 2020:
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, every unfunded mandate results in a mandatory increase in property taxes; 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 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.
Counties may localize the resolution by replacing the opening clause of the last paragraph with, “NOW, THEREFORE, the Commissioners Court of ______________ County, Texas, does hereby resolve…”
“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 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. Additional surveys were conducted in 2018 and 2020. A survey report is released every other year as a communication tool to help explain the cost of unfunded and underfunded mandates on property taxpayers. Cost categories include indigent defense, indigent health care, and medical care in county jails, what Gossom describes as “open-ended expenses” passed on to local governments. To view the 2018 report in full, go to https://bit.ly/3pVnG93.
The Task at Hand
The CJCAT and its Legislative Committee continue to keep a watchful eye on legislation that has been filed. However, the task at hand – supporting legislation to restrict unfunded mandates – requires both a collective effort in Austin combined with individual work on the homefront, Allison said. Suggestions include:
- Request that your House member support and co-sponsor HJR 32 by Rep. Shine.
- Pass a resolution at the local level calling for the prohibition of unfunded mandates and make sure copies of this resolution land directly in the hands of your senators and representatives.
- Establish regular contact with your individual senators and representatives and their staff members. Discuss how unfunded mandates impact your county’s ability to provide local services.
Several years ago, Victoria County passed a local resolution based on the CJCAT Resolution in Opposition to Unfunded Mandates, said CJCAT President Ben Zeller, Victoria County Judge. The Commissioners Court added another clause to the resolution:
“WHEREAS, Texas counties represent a great value for governmental service, with Victoria County representing less than 18 percent of a Victoria, Texas, resident’s annual property tax bill;”
“It helps put things in perspective when each county also includes its percentage of the total property tax bill,” Zeller noted. To download a Local Unfunded Mandate Resolution Sample, go to https://bit.ly/35iZiXh.
By Julie Anderson, Editor