• October 1, 2014

Bell court opposes unfunded mandates

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Posted: Tuesday, April 3, 2007 12:00 pm | Updated: 10:35 am, Mon Feb 17, 2014.

By Don Bolding

Killeen Daily Herald

Bell County Commissioners approved a resolution Monday favoring the passage of House Joint Resolution 61, now in the House County Affairs Committee in Austin. The resolution would establish a constitutional amendment prohibiting unfunded mandates to local governments.

The resolution recounts that House County Affairs Committee Chairman Wayne Smith introduced HJR 61 on Feb. 12 and heard testimony Feb. 21 "with the overwhelming majority of witnesses in support of the bill, including numerous county officials." The resulution states that, as things stand, the Legislature, state agencies or executive orders may enact laws or promulgate rules that force counties to spend money to comply and says, "Such unfunded mandates disproportionately burden local property taxpayers with paying for state programs, resulting in local tax increases and/or cutbacks in local programs."

It further states, "Texas counties cannot achieve reliable financial planning and the necessary bond ratings sufficient to support county-related obligations when the state mandates a new program that is not fully funded, reduces or fully withdraws prior funding and disbursement for county government programs or does not fund the increasing cost of existing mandates. It is in the best interests of Texas counties and their taxpayers to support and favor the passage of HJR 61."

The bill would prohibit the imposition of many mandatory programs without accompanying funding by the Legislature or any branch of state government.

Bell County Judge Jon Burrows said, "Every county supports this." He said counties have to rely mainly on ad valorem taxes to respond to such demands without the flexibility in funding sources that cities have. "We've tried to eliminate unfunded mandates in the past but always run into arguments that they're hard to define. Well, when I write a check to pay for them, it's not hard to define."

Commissioner Richard Cortese said, "Everybody wants less government, but everybody wants these programs. Somebody has to pay for them, and somebody gets stuck with the bill."

Burrows said some recent burdens that were particularly onerous included requirements for the county to pay for indigent legal defense and legal counsel in Child Protective Services cases. "The first one made us raise our tax rate 1 cent and the second 1.5 cents," he said.

Also, with County Clerk Shelley Coston and District Clerk Shelia Norman, they celebrated the governor's signing of House Bill 2061, which was rushed through the Legislature in the wake of an attorney general's opinion that said Social Security numbers could not be on documents the clerks release on request. The opinion spurred attempts to eliminate the numbers from copies of documents released throughout the state, but the bill protects clerks from civil or criminal liability in case they do release a Social Security number.

Regarding HB 2061, the county and district clerks are now using computer programs manually to take Social Security numbers out of copies of documents given out in the course of business and are working on computer programs to do that automatically. The attorney general's opinion had caused a near-panic, particularly in large counties, because personnel would have had to examine each document individually, forcing normal business almost to a standstill.

The bill, which passed both houses by a two-thirds majority and went into effect as soon as Gov. Rick Perry signed it, exempts the Social Security numbers of living persons from the Open Records Act, but permits disclosure of numbers by county or district clerks without liability to criminal charges or charges of official misconduct. It allows persons whose numbers are on documents to ask clerks to remove all but the last four digits and clarifies that the numbers are not to be included in real property record filings. but removes the legal obligation of clerks to ensure they are not.

Contact Don Bolding at dbolding@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7557

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