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Perry's Magic Wand: Disappearing Mandates

Texas puts its money far from where its mouth is

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 4, 2011

Is Texas preparing for an enormous public services bait and switch? Under the guise of protecting local governments from undue regulation, state Republicans are preparing to cut both state and local services, thereby fulfilling Grover Norquist's dream of making government small enough to drown in a bathtub.

The tool and the target are the system of "unfunded mandates." No one likes the fact that the Legislature orders cities and counties to provide basic services without contributing to costs. There are increasingly loud conservative voices arguing that the solution is to terminate the mandates. Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said she's hearing support for such a step from cash-strapped municipalities. The catch is that many of the things classified by the Texas Association of Counties as unfunded or underfunded mandates are basic services – such as indigent health care and county public defenders, or acts of fairness like reimbursement for trial witnesses and health insurance for volunteer firefighters. "We're agreeing on these things being good to provide," said Howard, "but we're not providing the funds to allow it to happen."

State lawmakers are finding ways to back out of their few remaining obligations to local government. For example, rather than fulfilling their commitment to pay for public schools under the target revenue system, Howard said, "We're going to change that funding formula so that – presto, abracadabra! – we no longer owe that money to you." However, that may be the first step in a larger move to leave Texans without services. On Feb. 22, Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, filed House Bill 1634, hoping to establish a new interagency work group whose job would be to prepare a list of unfunded mandates created after Jan. 1, 2011. Local governments would only be "required to comply with a mandate for which the Legislature has provided reimbursement." No state cash, no obligation, no service. Three days after Bonnen filed his bill, Gov. Rick Perry stepped up the pace when he announced the formation of a new nonpartisan task force on unfunded mandates. The end result of this campaign, Howard said, could be fewer essential services, fewer frontline service providers, and higher unemployment. "When we're talking about savings through unfunded mandates, that's probably going to mean layoffs."

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