In reviewing the tape of the 85th Texas Legislature, much of the focus is placed on the conservative reforms that failed to make it across the finish line. Issues like property tax reform, preventing local taxpayers from funding abortion providers, and ending the automatic collection of labor union dues. In contrast, not enough attention is paid to those ill-conceived proposals that were successfully scuttled.
Perhaps no greater example is House Joint Resolution 73, a shortsighted proposal to amend the state constitution and invert our government upon its head. It would have allowed bureaucrats to object to new state laws and regulations by filing suit against the state under the claim they are “unfunded.”
For example, the state would not be able to require local governments to publish their financial information online, or record their public meetings, unless lawmakers pay them to do so.
Passing such legislation would have not only jeopardized conservative victories like the banning of sanctuary cities, Texas’ strong pro-life laws, and open carry, but our entire system of government.
To understand why, we need to get one fact straight. There’s no such thing as an “unfunded mandate” when it comes to the state and local governments. There are, however, mandates that impose costs on local governments. But each of these entities were also given the power to levies taxes and fees to finance the services the state has forced them to provide.
And there’s a larger point that is almost always ignored. Whether they be school boards, cities, counties, or otherwise, each of these political subdivisions are creatures of the state. Each and every one of them were created by – and exists at the pleasure of – the State of Texas.
As a result, the state’s power over them is absolute. This is not an alien concept.
Indeed, most Texans have at some point in their childhood heard one or perhaps both of their parents tell them “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it” or “so long as you live in this house, you’re going to follow my rules.”
Note: In the case of this author’s childhood, both phrases were heard rather frequently.
For better or for worse, the Texas Legislature, with only a simple majority, could pass a law revoking the City of Austin’s charter—effectively dissolving the city and its government. Likewise, state lawmakers could pass a law changing the name of the City of Dallas to East Fort Worth.
Without even commenting on the merit of such proposals, both ideas would likely spur large reactions from the electorate and moving any item through the Texas Legislature is an arduous process, so it isn’t likely that either will be considered, but they’re both technically plausible.
But, but, bureaucrats stutter and complain, conservatives don’t like it when the federal government tells states what to do without paying for it. What about that!?
As Ronald Reagan once said, “The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they’re ignorant. It’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.”
The bureaucrats’ argument might be logical if our republic had the inverted pyramid structure they imply, but that simply isn’t the case—the states created the federal government and are superior to them as well.
That said, local officials’ arguments against “unfunded mandates” are entirely unmerited. Indeed, one ex-local official recently informed Texas Scorecard of a time that a new state law required his city to replace recently installed stop signs with newer, more reflective signs. In passing the law, the state appropriated no funds to the city, and so the project would have to be completed at a massive cost to local taxpayers.
This proposal was certainly foolish, wasteful, and costly. But would it be any better if state legislators had provided tax dollars to fund it? No.
But that’s precisely what local governments would have you believe. You see, they only care about getting more of your money. Conservatives – and all taxpayers – should rejoice that HJR 73 died in the Texas Legislature during the 85th session. And they should be equally alarmed that it passed the Texas House in the first place.
The answer to the question of “unfunded mandates” is similar to most of those public policy questions that lawmakers currently wrest with. It isn’t about better government; it’s about less government. And while there are examples of state-level mandates that many argue are unnecessary, taxpayers should not have to pay for them twice.