Give local governments some relief

January 05, 1994

When it comes to enacting laws, the Maryland General Assembly is adept at passing along the cost of implementating them. More than 750 so-called unfunded mandates have been placed in state law books, imposing a huge but hidden burden on county and local governments.

Local leaders are fed up. They are demanding that state officials pause long enough before passing new laws to consider whether they will mean added costs to city and county governments. And for once, state officials seem to be listening.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer told the Maryland Association of Counties in August that he wouldn't be offering any legislation this year that contains unfunded state mandates. He also asked MACO members to point out state regulations they have found to be unreasonable or unnecessary.

Equally important, legislative leaders in the House and Senate have agreed to conduct a two-year study of unfunded mandates. The goal is to identify the truly burdensome mandates that ought to be eliminated or the state should underwrite. This year, legislative staffers will look at mandates in education, public safety, corrections, transportation, courts and alcoholic beverage law to see what expenses are required on the local level.

These mandates are costly to local governments. "It means we have to take money away from existing programs or cannot respond to constituent demands or have to raise taxes. None of those is an acceptable alternative," said MACO's executive director, David Bliden.

The frustrations felt by Maryland's local leaders are shared by their counterparts across the country. There was even a National Unfunded Mandates Day last Oct. 27. Enough furor was generated that the Senate Government Affairs Committee held hearings on the impact of unfunded federal mandates on cities and towns.

But don't count on Congress to do anything other than express sympathy. Members of Congress historically have been quick to pass laws with sweeping implications but they are reluctant to earmark money to help localities implement them.

On a state level, though, momentum appears to be building to do something constructive about this problem. Local government leaders need to keep up the pressure so state legislators and the governor will take action this year. It is a simple way to make government more efficient and also less costly.

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