2010-01-03 / Opinion

Lansing must live up to obligations

In Michigan, an unfunded mandate is a requirement imposed by state government on local governments or school districts with no funding to pay for it. In these times of reduced state funding because of budget woes it’s even more critical to reduce the burden on Lapeer County government units that are unable to absorb more costs and regulations and policy changes.

In effect, it passes the costs of doing the state’s business on the backs of local governments.

Cornerstones of the Constitution of the United States and of each of the 50 states are the rule of law, separation of powers and federalism.

Unfortunately, the State of Michigan has flaunted each of these foundations, according to an otherwise dry report issued by the Citizens Research Council: Reforming the Process for Identifying and Funding Section 29 Mandates on Local Governments.

The report shows that the drafters of the Headlee Amendment, approved by Michigan voters in 1978, predicted that the state might try to push expenditures down to local governments as a result of state revenue limitations enacted by the amendment. This is why Section 29 of the amendment required that any mandates handed down to local governments be paid for the by the state.

Let’s just say the state hasn’t exactly lived up to its end of the bargain. In fact, the state has continually pushed more unfunded mandates on local governments like ours here in Lapeer County since 1978, in open violation of the Michigan Constitution and the foundational value of the rule of law.

The CRC report concludes in part: Over the 30 years since adoption of the Headlee Amendment, the Section 29 obligation to fund state requirements has been both actively opposed and ignored by state officials. The blame for ignoring this section of the Constitution can be equally shared by all three branches of state government.

Local government officials have spent a great deal of time documenting this and have pressed their case to state officials. Though the Legislative Commission on Statutory Mandates dimly views legal recourse to resolve the unfunded mandates issue, it might well be that a class action lawsuit is the only way to resolve this issue.

The elimination of the jail reimbursement program from the fiscal year 2009-2010 state budget leaves cash-strapped counties like Lapeer with the options of assuming the total housing cost and cutting back elsewhere, or convincing judges to send these inmates to state prison instead of the county jail.

We’re also concerned about state revenue sharing, or should we say lack thereof. State revenue sharing began in the 1930s when the state convinced municipalities to abandon certain tax levies that they were authorized to make in return for the revenue sharing redistribution from the state. Over time, revenue sharing has become a critical component of a county government’s ability to provide state mandated services in the true spirit of federalism.

The CRC report points out that county governments assisted the state with balancing its books five years ago by cooperating with the advance -- from December to June -- of the operating property tax capture in return for the statutory assurance that the state would again pick up these payments as each county’s revenue sharing fund was depleted.

This was violated recently with the cuts to counties who have exhausted their revenue-sharing reserve funds and were either receiving or were scheduled to receive revenue sharing payments during the state 2009-2010 fiscal year, representing yet another broken promise from Lansing and violation of the rule of law.

Who cares? We all should. This is inexcusable and must be addressed in the new year, because it means less money in the pockets of county government at a time when they can least afford it. It’s time for Lansing to live up to its obligations.

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