Unfunded mandates in Florida: Separating truth from fiction

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BizPac Review.

Sometimes tempers flare and body temperatures rise among politicians when the discussion turns to mandates handed down from the State of Florida to the state’s counties and cities.

(AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)

The state sees mandates as a legal right they possess, and a duty they have, to require local governments to share in the task and cost of providing government services for citizens. Counties and municipalities sometimes bristle over the notion that the state can tell local governments what to do in certain instances, and to make them fund the costs.

But when the rhetoric and vitriol starts flying, it’s time to step back and understand how the mandate process is designed to work and how America’s system of federalism structures and distributes power and governmental authority in America and Florida. Federalism is a system of government in which states and cities share power with the national government.

An unfunded mandate is a regulation or statute that requires a government, either local or state, to perform functions or actions for which no money has been provided. For example, to promote national goals, the U.S. federal government has over 175 laws that require state and local government spending, including Florida.

In turn, states employ “intergovernmental mandates” to impose responsibilities on counties and cities within their states. Federal and state mandates are proclamations of law. Florida’s original constitution did not recognize counties. But in 1861, Florida gave constitutional status to counties, which were recognized as legal subdivisions of the state. The 1885 Florida Constitution granted the Legislature the power to create new counties and change county boundaries. Fast-forwarding to 1968, Constitutional revisions gave 1) Legislatures the constitutional authority to establish counties by “providing for counties to be created, abolished or changed by law”, and 2) greater authority for local governments to perform certain functions and make local laws that apply to them.

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A “county government” may be established by charter, which must be adopted only upon a vote of the county’s electors. But this distinction applies to the government of a county, not the county itself.

All this is to say that a county only comes into existence at the pleasure and action of Florida’s legislature, which also has near-complete authority (by a supermajority vote) to determine the revenue sources of local governments.

This sharing of power among the three levels of government is basic federalism, which extends down to relationships between local and state governments. But

Florida’s statutes exist in part to protect rights of individuals “by providing a forum above local politics (because) the ability to circumvent local government by appealing directly to the State prevents narrowly defined minorities from getting too much control at the local level,” stated the Florida State University Law Review in 1990. This is a nice way of saying that sometimes city commissions around Florida pass ordinances and taxes that are toxic to good sense, and need to be reined in.

(AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)

Thus, there is little question that Florida has the legal authority to enact laws that require local governments to spend funds which such governments may have difficulty raising, which could put them in fiscal binds. Sometimes this means county and municipal governments resent the state’s authority, even though the state “must retain its authority over local governments in order to maintain the separation of power necessary for federalism”. But an amusing aspect to this resentment is that when the shoe is on the other foot, our county government has little hesitation to demand Palm Beach County’s cities pay for projects over which the cities may have little or no control (i.e. the office of Inspector General).

In 1990, voters approved a constitutional amendment which gave local governments more bargaining power over unfunded mandates, and which protected existing local sources of revenue. The amendment accomplished this by requiring certain conditions to be met before mandating local governments to spend money or take certain actions. Still, these restrictions can be overcome by a 2/3 supermajority vote of the legislature.

Many laws that local officials call mandates are appropriately funded locally. Some of the big mandates that local governmental officials complain about are: the mandatory county contribution for the state’s Medicaid program, the shared juvenile detention costs, and the requirement that local insurance premium taxes must be used for additional benefits for police and fire.

But, we must remember: In the last 35 years, huge increases in federal mandates were imposed on state governments to maintain federal “social policy controls” and reduce federal spending. This enormous fiscal burden forced on states by the Feds (and Florida was no exception) caused states to enact their own legislation to shift some costs onto counties and cities. So, if local officials are looking for original causes for some of their fiscal dilemmas, the finger of blame should be pointed equally at the federal government.

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Mandates have always been a part of Florida government, but most of them are older and have been around for a while. But things are not as bad as some local officials say. While mandates play a role in the current mix of state and local taxation, certainly they are not the main reason for most of the increases in local government taxes.


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John R. Smith


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