The Cost of Unfunded Mandates

If it is important enough to mandate, it is important enough to fund.
by David Zimmerman, Tazewell County Board

I know a group of people in our state who continually look for perceived needs in our society, then develop what they consider solutions to those issues. After that, they submit the bill to others for immediate payment. These “unfunded mandates” from the Illinois state legislature occur regularly, despite our pleas to either fund them outright or not pass them at all.

We have the same issues with the federal government, but they are usually more subtle (and generally more expensive). They come in the form of new regulations or standards that require we change the way we do things at the county level. Environmental permitting alone can add tens of thousands of dollars and many years to bridge projects, for example.

I am not arguing the merits of these new laws—only the way in which they are passed and the lack of funding that accompanies these changes. Our local legislators have an enormously difficult task in front of them, and we appreciate their service. But I would like to highlight a few of the more recent unfunded mandates coming from the state and their associated costs.

The most recent move, a costly one, was the passage of a $15 hourly minimum wage. Several years ago, we hired a management consulting firm to analyze and categorize the different positions within Tazewell County. They looked at a variety of job responsibilities (e.g. handling money, managing people, confidentiality) and put each position in a “band” for ranking purposes. What this means for Tazewell County is that moving our lowest-paid employees up moves everyone up the pay scale. When this unfunded mandate is fully implemented, we could possibly see a 46% increase in hourly pay rates. We do not have those funds and will therefore have to make some difficult decisions.

Another costly issue that counties did not request from the state legislature was the consolidation of our 911 call centers. This mandate requires that Tazewell County reduce our four call centers down to two, despite the fact that the current system is working efficiently and cost-effectively. The new arrangement will cost taxpayers in our county an additional $2 million to $4 million when all is said and done. The legislation has also created some difficult questions regarding who pays and how much. Some smaller municipalities with a disproportionate share of calls will end up paying a heavy burden.

Same-day voter registration in every precinct, while good on paper, creates significant additional spending and logistical issues for the county. Besides the estimated up-front costs of $170,000, there continue to be ongoing costs for equipment, software and internet access at each polling site. Jury pay and expanded sick leave also have costs that are mandated on our county with commensurate funding. Even seemingly good issues—like transparency legislation or property tax exemptions for people with disabilities—all come with a cost.

I understand there is an unwritten rule in Springfield. If a legislator wants something passed but there is no money for the program, you shift who pays for the new rule. That is not right. If it is important enough to mandate, it is important enough to fund.

For decades, Tazewell County has maintained one of the lowest tax rates in the State of Illinois, and this is not by accident. We are a tax-capped county that strives to maintain a lean and responsible budget. When our legislators regularly pass unfunded mandates, it threatens our taxpayers, our employees and our fiscal health. PM

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