Getting stiffed: Pierce County and other local governments owed fair share by Washington Legislature

State government mandates put counties between a rock and a hard place.
State government mandates put counties between a rock and a hard place.

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 indigent 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-numbered 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 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.