Commission says MI forces local gov'ts to pay billions


A special commission says the state has been forcing local governments to shoulder the costs of billions of dollars in unfunded mandates. That would violate a 32-year-old, voter-approved amendment to the state constitution. Legislative leaders were formally handed the report Wednesday. They say the state will adopt measures soon to ensure that does not continue.

The 1978 Headlee Amendment to the Michigan Constitution says the state may not require local governments to do something that costs them money without appropriating the money to do it. But over the years, legislators and governors have approved laws that have forced local governments and their taxpayers to pick up the tab for new costs associated with public employee pensions, environmental cleanups, courts, and schools.

Andy Schor is a lobbyist at the state Capitol for cities and townships and he's an Ingham County commissioner. Schor says he's often objected to programs because of the costs forced on local governments.

"We have all of these items that we have to fund, we have no choice but to fund, which means we have to cut other things when we have budget problems," he says. "The answer is always, It's just going to cost a little. It's not that big of a deal." And I have to tell them it's not only unconstitutional, but you're making us spend more on something that's not police and fire, that's not health, safety for their constituents."

Dennis Pollard is an attorney who sued the state on behalf of school districts trying to recoup costs of state-required special education and transportation services.

"That should not happen in a constitutional form of government," he maintains.

Pollard served as a co-chair of the Legislative Commission on Unfunded Mandates.

"The people are in charge and they've said very clearly through the Headlee amendment that if the state requires something than they have to fund it and that hasn't been happening," he goes on.

The problem, says Pollard and other commission members, is local governments can't stop the state from piling new costs on them without going to court. But that can be a long, expensive process. It took Pollard 17 years to win his case against the state.

The commission says the Legislature should have to evaluate the costs of new laws on local governments. And a law should not take effect if there is no cost evaluation and no appropriation of money to cover it.

Governor Granholm has supported unfunded mandates - including new high school graduation standards that schools must comply with. But says she'd like to see a pay-as-you-go approach going forward that would require every new law to have an identified source of funding.

"All of these pieces of legislation that are passed we need to know, 'What are the consequences? Who is going to pay for it?' And if it's not going to be paid for than it shouldn't be passed," she says.

Legislative leaders say they intend to act soon to enact at least some of the commission's recommendations. One of them would create a special magistrate in the state Court of Appeals to deal with unfunded mandates. The court officer would hear complaints from local governments, and would have six months to make a decision. If the magistrate rules a state law or policy forces local taxpayers to pick up the tab, the local governments could ignore it until the Legislature comes up with money to pay for it.