State owes fair share to lo­cal govern­ments like Pierce

The News Tribune - - Opinion - BY THE NEWS TRI­BUNE ED­I­TO­RIAL BOARD

Lo­cal govern­ment of­fi­cials who ask state leg­is­la­tors for more money are some­times viewed like whiny chil­dren beg­ging their par­ents for a raise in their al­lowance. Sym­pa­thy can be scarce when there are so many other mouths to feed and an end­less stream of bills to pay.

But to ex­tend the anal­ogy a bit more: What if the kids are handed a list of costly house­hold du­ties, and that list keeps grow­ing? What if they must pick up a sib­ling from school, put gas in the car, buy lunch for lit­tle sis­ter, take her to the babysit­ter, and pay for child care?

Fair­ness dic­tates they shouldn’t have to crack open and de­plete their own piggy bank to meet those de­mands.

Wel­come to the 2019 Wash­ing­ton Leg­is­la­ture, which opens Mon­day and is cer­tain to have an­other lively round in the on­go­ing tug-of-war over so-called “un­funded man­dates.” These are the obli­ga­tions that state elected lead­ers rel­e­gate to lo­cal govern­ment lead­ers with­out suf­fi­cient re­sources to pay for them.

In other words: Pass­ing the buck, with­out the bucks.

State law­mak­ers must re­sist their nat­u­ral im­pulse to­ward cost shift­ing and buck pass­ing in the up­com­ing ses­sion, and they should clean up pre­vi­ous mis­takes. If they don’t, they could end up fac­ing le­gal ac­tion. The As­so­ci­a­tion of Wash­ing­ton Coun­ties says it’s pre­pared to file suit if the state keeps skimp­ing on its con­sti­tu­tional and statu­tory re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

The Leg­is­la­ture should also con­sider re­mov­ing the hand­cuffs from lo­cal fund­ing sources, such as the roughly 4-per­cent share of mar­i­juana rev­enue that’s al­lo­cated to coun­ties and cities where pot sales are al­lowed. In Colorado, the lo­cal govern­ment share is 10 per­cent.

Un­funded man­dates — or per­haps more ac­cu­rately, un­der­funded man­dates — were front and cen­ter Thurs­day when Pierce County Coun­cil mem­bers met with House and Se­nate mem­bers who rep­re­sent the South Sound and dis­cussed pri­or­i­ties for the next 105 days in Olympia.

One mes­sage de­liv­ered to leg­is­la­tors: If you’re go­ing to keep pil­ing on new pol­icy ini­tia­tives and well-mean­ing man­dates, then you’d bet­ter re­im­burse us for the costs. Oth­er­wise, we can’t af­ford the core ser­vices our con­stituents ex­pect.

Stronger law en­force­ment pro­tec­tion, for in­stance. The Pierce County Sher­iff’s De­part­ment is cur­rently down 30 deputy po­si­tions.

Coun­cil­man Derek Young, the Gig Har­bor Demo­crat who has an evan­ge­list’s zeal for solv­ing the un­funded-man­date prob­lem, put it like this: “We sup­port your good ideas,” the Gig Har­bor Demo­crat said. “But when a good idea doesn’t come with money and it pre­vents me from hir­ing a new deputy, then it be­comes a bad idea.”

A hand­ful of un­funded man­dates were iden­ti­fied Thurs­day that merit se­ri­ous ex­am­i­na­tion by leg­is­la­tors, in­clud­ing:

Trial court de­fense of in

A di­gent clients. All Wash­ing­ton cit­i­zens have a con­sti­tu­tional right to an at­tor­ney, but the state pays only 4 per­cent of the cost of pub­lic de­fend­ers — sixth worst in the U.S. — and leaves coun­ties to cover the rest.

Mean­while, the Leg­is­la­ture and Supreme Court have handed down new pub­lic de­fender caseload stan­dards.

Elec­tion costs in even-numA bered years. These bal­lots are dom­i­nated by statewide, leg­isla­tive and fed­eral of­fices, and yet the state falls well short of pay­ing its fair share of elec­tion costs to county au­di­tor of­fices.

On the crowded 2016 bal­lot, when Wash­ing­to­ni­ans voted for pres­i­dent and gov­er­nor, more than $1.1 mil­lion of the state’s bill to Pierce County went un­paid.

Pierce County Au­di­tor Julie An­der­son re­marked Thurs­day that even the fi­nan­cially strapped Bethel School Dis­trict has paid its full freight in re­cent even-year school bond elec­tions. So why can’t the state?

Same-day voter reg­is­tra­tion

A and a re­quire­ment for ad­di­tional bal­lot drop boxes.

Thurs­day’s at­mos­phere was col­le­gial, the ta­ble filled with lo­cal and state lead­ers united by their de­vo­tion to the 253. But there was some re­spect­ful push­back on the un­funded-man­date is­sue.

Sen. Jean­nie Darneille ques­tioned whether tax­pay­ers care which level of govern­ment has to bud­get for the ser­vices they re­ceive; it comes out of their pocket ei­ther way. “A dol­lar is a dol­lar is a dol­lar,” the Ta­coma Demo­crat said.

True enough. But lo­cal govern­ment de­ci­sion mak­ers have a straighter line of ac­count­abil­ity to tax­pay­ers, with­out the in­flu­ence of politi­cians from Seat­tle and else­where mixed in.

The 2019 Leg­is­la­ture has an un­en­vi­able work­load ahead. Re­pair­ing a frac­tured men­tal health sys­tem is crit­i­cal, as well as hous­ing the home­less and re­solv­ing dif­fer­ences over K-12 school fund­ing. Cli­mate change must be ad­dressed, along with sav­ing na­tive salmon and or­cas.

But leg­is­la­tors shouldn’t for­get that many of these obli­ga­tions spill over into the laps of lo­cal govern­ments. To not raise their al­lowance would be ir­re­spon­si­ble.

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