Across the state there is a growing chorus from local officials about the need for a constitutional amendment preventing the state from enacting so-called “unfunded mandates.” While the campaign sounds good at first glance, it is a trap that would turn government on its head and endanger future conservative reforms.
The left is pushing “unfunded mandate” legislation with the hope they can use it to defeat conservative victories like the recent ban on sanctuary cities, Texas’ strong pro-life laws, and open carry.
The problem is that there is no real definition of an “unfunded mandate,” especially when it involves the state and local governments. That isn’t to say the state never imposes costs on local governments—every criminal law on the books certainly does that to one degree or another. But that’s why local governments are empowered to levy taxes and fees to finance the services the state has forced them to provide.
The real question isn’t if a state “mandate” is funded, but whether it makes sense in the first place.
Underlying the “unfunded mandates” campaign is a larger point that is almost always ignored. Whether they be school boards, cities, counties, or one of Texas’ broad ranging utility districts, each are political subdivisions and creatures of the state. Each and every one of them were created by— and exist at the pleasure of—the State of Texas. Local governments are created to carry out state policy, not to exist in their own right.
As a result, the state’s power over them is absolute. This is not an alien concept. However, to some local government officials, it appears to be.
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.”
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.
Now you ask, what about the age-old clamoring from the tightly held Democrat coalition of tax funded lobby groups such as the Texas Municipal League and the Texas Association of Counties?
Conservatives don’t like it when the federal government tells states what to do without paying for it, they say. 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 argument might be logical if our republic were turned on its head. However, the states created the federal government and will always be superior to it.
When asked, local government officials have trouble elaborating on the “unfunded mandates” complaint.
For example, one former local official gave Texas Scorecard the example of a time when 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 was required to be completed at a significant cost to local taxpayers.
That law was certainly foolish, wasteful, and costly. But would it ultimately have been any better if state tax dollars were used to fund it instead? No.
But that’s precisely what local governments would have you believe if you accept their argument.
Conservatives – and all taxpayers – shouldn’t demand that new mandates be funded out of state dollars (taxpayers’ left pocket) rather than local tax dollars (taxpayers’ right pocket). That would just add insult to injury by forcing taxpayers to pay for unneeded stop signs on the other side of the state.
Instead, Texas should stop silly mandates like replacing perfectly good stop signs.
We do not need a rule that requires every state policy to come with funding, we need to be smarter and more discerning about what we require local governments to do. Regardless which level of government cuts the check for the newly mandated service, taxpayers are ultimately going to be left footing the bill.
Unfortunately, the left has hijacked the “unfunded mandate” crusade to use it as a tool to attack statewide conservative policies. After the legislature passed conservative bills like the sanctuary cities ban, pro-life reforms, and open carry, local governments, at the behest of TML and TAC, attacked each of those proposals as “unfunded mandates.”
Just as the ISD’s perennially spend millions in the courts complaining about a lack of funding, an “unfunded mandate” law would lead to local governments suing the state every time the state adopts a policy they don’t like. That will ultimately mean millions wasted on lawyers, and taxpayers will be left footing the bill.
The State of Texas draws its tax revenue from the same pool of taxpayers as local governments, and so the answer isn’t going to be found in accounting gimmicks. The simple solution is less government regulation, at every level.