Guest Editorials, Opinion

The scourge of unfunded mandates

This week the Carter County Clerk reported to fiscal court that new mandates for voting machines could cost the county in excess of $400,000. While the federal government is providing the county with a small portion of the funds needed for the replacement — a total of $57,000 — with 26 voting locations, and clerks offices on each end of the county, that’s $57,000 out of a $476,000 total. It’s a mere fraction of the money needed.

Yet, if the county, which is already strapped for resources, doesn’t update these machines they could potentially have the local results of our next presidential election called into question.

We aren’t here to discuss whether there was widespread voter fraud from the hacking of voting machines in the last election as some have claimed. What we are here to discuss is the problem with unfunded mandates.

This voting machine issue isn’t the first unfunded mandate that the county and local communities have faced. From roads and bridges to schools to retirement programs, local governments are often tasked with providing services and programs to their citizens without any accompanying funding to help them meet those requirements. When funding is provided, as with the voting machine funding, it is often insufficient to meet the needs of the mandate.

This often leaves local governments with two options; fund the programs from general fund moneys or other local revenue sources, or finance the debt. For wealthier counties and municipalities, with so-called “rainy day” funds, they can dip into those sources to pay for the required improvements.

But for less affluent and more rural communities, who are already struggling to meet their financial obligations, these unfunded mandates can have a more serious impact.

This is not a partisan issue. Unfunded mandates have come from both Republican and Democratic administrations, from both the federal and state level, and have impacted both Republican and Democratic elected officials.

While the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act was passed in 1995 to help curb the impact of these unfunded requirements on state, local, and tribal governments, it hasn’t made a huge impact.

A 2020 report from the federal Office of Management and Budget for the years 2018, 2019, and 2020 on compliance with the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act showed that while the rules of the act require “specific analyses and consultations that agencies must undertake for rules that may result in expenditures of over $100 million (adjusted annually for inflation) in any year by state, local and tribal governments in the aggregate, or by the private sector,” that the last decade of regulation has “imposed costs of more than $100 million per year in 1995 dollars” on those local governments.

This doesn’t include the cost to private businesses and other government entities.

Unfunded mandates are clearly a problem, despite the 1995 UMRA, and while no one wants to ever suggest a raise in taxes, the money for these mandates – no matter how well intended they are or the level of good they do in a community — must come from somewhere.

This editorial first appeared in the Carter County Times on Tuesday. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.