By Hayley Kappes
Killeen Daily Herald
Bell County Judge Jon Burrows wants to see unfunded mandates prohibited by the state Legislature, and he's taken proactive measures to have his voice heard.
The county commissioners court approved a resolution last Monday that would send a message to State Sen. Troy Fraser and State Reps. Ralph Sheffield and Jimmie Don Aycock expressing disapproval of unfunded mandates on counties.
The letter urged them to co-author HJR 84, a self-enacting constitutional amendment that State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-University Oaks, filed last month that would prohibit state unfunded mandates on counties.
Unfunded mandates are regulations that impose costs on local and state governments, for which they are not reimbursed. It is the state or local government's responsibility to secure funding for the mandate.
A letter from the Texas Conference of Urban Counties to the Texas House of Representatives said the bill would "strengthen the state-county partnership by facilitating clear accountability for policy decisions without unreasonably limiting the ability of the Legislature to act when a board consensus exists and is justified."
Burrows said unfunded mandates almost always place burdens on local taxpayers to foot the bill.
Burrows said some mandates are subtle when they go through the House, and may not be apparent on the surface, but add up over time.
An unwanted drug court
A mandate arose during the last legislative session requiring counties with a population over 200,000 to file a plan and seek grant funding to create a drug court.
Bell County received $100,000 for the drug court, but Burrows said this will not cover all the expenses incurred, for which they originally requested $240,000.
A provision of the legislation stated counties are only required to have a drug court if sufficient funding comes forward.
"The county adult probation office and district courts handle drug offenses," Burrows said. "Our judges were already doing the same thing a drug court would do. This is another unfunded mandate on us for a program we didn't ask for, and our judges said we don't need."
Burrows said he contacted the governor's office on criminal justice, who told him the funding mechanism in the statute failed to generate enough funds for all Texas counties.
Burrows said they are working with the state to determine how to approach the drug court issue.
"I do realize that there are some things that counties have to pay for," Burrows said. "My approach has always been if the state thinks this is a good thing to do, we don't disagree, but they should provide the funding, rather than burden the local taxpayers to fund their idea."
Janice McCoy, a representative from Fraser's office, said the senator did not have a comment about the legislation.
"There's too many bills in the Legislature and we haven't taken the time to look at it," McCoy said in a voicemail message.
Aycock and Sheffield did not express support in honoring the Bell County Commissioners Court's request for them to co-author the bill.
Aycock said he remains undecided as to whether or not he will co-author Coleman's bill.
"The problem is defining what an unfunded mandate is," Aycock said. "I'm not sure I'm willing to go to the point of making a constitutional amendment which is what (the commissioners court) is proposing."
Sheffield said he is opposed to unfunded mandates because they create a burden on county taxpayers, but said he will not support a constitutional amendment that would prohibit them.
"An amendment would tie the Legislature's hands in the future if something does arise that can't be funded by the state and needs to be funded by counties," Sheffield said. "I'm not one for that kind of amendment, and I don't think it will pass."
Sheffield said he is opposed to any new taxes and will do his best to limit unfunded mandates for his home district.
"Just because we send an unfunded mandate to a county, doesn't mean they have to raise taxes," Sheffield said. "They may just have to tighten their belt."
Contact Hayley Kappes at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7559.