Some ‘Unfunded Mandates’ are Bad, But Many Others are Okay


By John A. Ostenburg

A common complaint among lots of municipal officials is that the state or federal government many times imposes mandates that the local officials then must implement. It becomes especially problematic when costs associated with putting the state or federal measures in place require local funding, which means that municipal taxes increase because of something that elected officials at a higher level have decided is important.

While I agree with my fellow elected officials that “unfunded mandates” are a problem, I also recognize that higher levels of government sometimes have to mandate things because folks at the lower levels have ignored the need to do something.

In the 1960s, for example, the federal government had to require the various states to provide for the civil rights of all their citizens because many of the states themselves chose not to do so on their own. Were there costs involved in that process? Indeed. Were the various states required to meet those costs? Yes. But was the federal government supposed to foot the bill just because it made the states do what they should have been doing in the first place? I don’t think so.

Likewise, over the last few years, many states – including Illinois – have put smoking bans in place. Local governments have been charged with the responsibility of implementing those bans, which in turn has required the expenditure of local tax dollars. But is it the state’s responsibility to come up with the funds to support laws that are for the common good of all the citizens? Given the fact that it costs the taxpayers more to pay taxes at the state level and then have them funneled through the bureaucracy and eventually back to implementing local standards, I don’t think so.

As I recall from my high school geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line; as applied to taxes, that rule means that the least amount of taxes are required for projects that are funded at the level where they are implemented, rather than tax dollars going to Springfield or Washington and then eventually finding their way back to local government.

Over the last several years, lots of mandates have come down regarding environmental issues. The federal government has required the states to do certain things and the states in turn have required cities, towns, and villages to meet certain standards, many times with various expensive price-tags associated with them. The end result, however, has been protection of our planet, and improvement in the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Frankly, I welcome the standards that have been set by higher levels of government on matters such as this. Federal and state officials often have resources at their disposal that allow them to see a problem much more comprehensively than we could do at the local level. And – in the final analysis – if what they are requiring us to do is in the public’s best interest, and if it will be paid for by taxpayers anyway, what difference does it make whether those taxes are collected locally, statewide, or federally?

Now, I don’t mean to suggest by my remarks that I think elected officials at the federal or state levels are smarter than are local officials. Nothing could be further from my true opinion. All I’m arguing is that blanket opposition to “unfunded mandates,” without careful consideration of everything that’s involved in each individual one of them, is nothing more than a knee-jerk and illogical response. Some mandates are bad, and some are good. Effective policymakers examine each one on its own merits rather than hide behind some cliché-ish objection to all of them.

For example, I think, personally, that some state legislation that has been passed requiring local governments to provide extra benefits – e.g., special pension benefits – for public employees statewide in certain groupings – i.e., firefighters and police officers – is a one-size-fits-all approach that’s not particularly beneficial to the public at large, especially since it’s not the state that pays for those benefits but rather the local units of government. To my way of thinking, that’s a mandate that oversteps the authority of state lawmakers. After all, they already have imposed legislation that requires collective bargaining with public employees who desire to unionize and engage in such. So why undermine that process by then also taking some things off the table as items that can be bargained?

I believe strongly in the right of public employees to unionize and to engage in the collective bargaining process. I believe they have the right to go to the negotiating table with their list of demands and to barter with management over which ones ultimately make their way into a mutually-agreed-upon contract. I believe they have the right to strike if they cannot convince management by any other means that they deserve better consideration than they are receiving.

When the state jumps into the process by requiring certain definitive benefits for all employees, even if they are benefits that the employees in a particular municipality may not be seeking, then the collective bargaining process is thrown awry. The tax dollars that are being used to fund the mandate might have been used for something that the public employees thought more important, but the opportunity to bargain the mandated items is not an option because the state has made their guarantee a requirement. It’s hard for me to understand how that’s in the best interest of the employee or anyone else.

So my message to legislators – federal or state – is not to stop the mandates, but rather to be more circumspect in which mandates ultimately are passed down. Don’t pass on a mandate just because you want to curry the favor of a particular group, or just because you want to pass on to someone else the responsibility for raising taxes to fund a needed action. Rather, give thoughtful review to each situation to decide what in fact is in the best interest of all parties involved, and then act accordingly.

And my message to my fellow local officials is similar. Don’t oppose all mandates just because you like to rail about “unfunded mandates.” Rather, you too should give thoughtful review to each situation to decide what is in all parties’ best interest, and then act to ensure that.

So, do you think I’m a utopian? Or just a fool?

John A. Ostenburg is mayor of Park Forest, Illinois, and formerly served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He is the chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union. E-mail him at [email protected]. This article is from his blog The Outpost Observer, Copyright © 2009 John Ostenburg, used with permission.