A package of bills introduced in the Michigan House of Representatives by local lawmakers would essentially require state legislators to follow the Michigan Constitution by appropriating the necessary funds for bills they pass if those bills require local units of government to incur added costs due to provisions in the new laws and other actions of state government, such as administrative orders. Similar legislation was introduced in the last legislative session but died before the bills could be passed. Because local units of government are cash-strapped and, frankly, because the state Constitution isn’t something that lawmakers should be able to weasel around, we urge the state Legislature to take up the bills this session and give them their blessing.
House Bills (HBs) 4038 through 4041 — two of which were introduced by state Rep. Eileen Kowall (R-White Lake, Highland) — have been referred to the House Government Operations Committee, where they await a hearing. State Rep. Gail Haines (R-Waterford, West Bloomfield) has signed on as a co-sponsor of the legislative package.
Unfunded mandates occur when the state government enacts laws or administrative rules that require local governments — school districts, community colleges, intermediate school districts, cities, villages, townships, counties, and authorities — to provide a new activity or service without allocating funding to pay for those services or activities.
Under the Headlee Amendment to Michigan’s 1963 Constitution, the state is “prohibited from reducing the state financed proportion of the necessary costs of any existing activity or service required of units of local government by state law. A new activity or service or an increase in the level of any activity or service beyond that required by existing law shall not be required by the Legislature or any state agency of units of local government, unless a state appropriation is made and disbursed to pay the unit of local government for any necessary increased costs.”
Despite this constitutional provision adopted by Michigan voters in 1978, the state government occasionally enacts unfunded mandates for local governments — sometimes unintentionally.
Under the new legislative package, a new activity or service — or an increase in the level of any activity or service beyond what is currently required under state statute of a local government by a state agency rule, regulation, bulletin or directive — would be prohibited unless the state Legislature appropriates funds and a disbursement system has been established to pay the affected local units of government for any necessary increased costs.
One of the bills seeks to set up a legislative process whereby the state government considers the fiscal impact of state government action on local units of government. A local government mandate advisory panel would put together “fiscal impact statements,” and the panel “would be able to pull together some estimates on what costs (are associated with various state government actions), and then advise our fiscal agencies of that,” Kowall said recently.
The panel would be comprised of the directors of the House and Senate fiscal agencies or their designees; the director of the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, or his or her designee; and representatives of groups representing the interests of counties, cities, villages, townships, school districts and intermediate school districts, and community colleges.
Although a similar package of bills was introduced but not enacted during the last legislative session, Kowall said she is “definitely a lot more hopeful” that the new package will be met with greater support this time around, now that Republicans control both legislative chambers and the governor’s mansion.
We hope that optimism materializes into these bills becoming law. Unfunded mandates have put undue financial hardships on communities not just in the lakes area, but across the state. Particularly at a time when municipalities are cash-strapped due to decreased property tax revenues, any additional costs locals are burdened with by state government should be paid by the lawmakers in Lansing.
It’s admittedly a bit silly having to tell lawmakers that not following the Michigan Constitution when doing their legislative business isn’t an option. They took an oath to uphold and protect that document when taking office; it’s fait accompli that it shouldn’t be skirted. Whether legislation intentionally or unintentionally passes costs of new services or activities from the state down to local governments or not, the fact remains that unfunded mandates are unconstitutional. How lawmakers can get away with sidestepping the Headlee Amendment is, frankly, beyond us.
Kowall, Haines, and the rest of the bills’ backers are on the right side of the issue here. If passing a law essentially requiring lawmakers to follow the Michigan Constitution is what it takes to make unfunded mandates go the way of the dinosaur, then so be it. But regardless, it needs to be done — whether by having members of both parties bone up on the state’s governing document and actually doing legislative work that doesn’t fly in the face of the Headlee Amendment, or whether it’s actually having a law that would make it mandatory for appropriations to be set aside for each mandate the state hands down from on high.