Having only recently satisfied the state Supreme Court that it is meeting its constitutional requirement to amply fund K-12 education, the state and its lawmakers could now face new legal challenges over funding, this time from the state’s 39 counties.
Officials for the counties, including Snohomish County, have told the Washington Association of Counties to prepare a lawsuit regarding unfunded mandates that state lawmakers have made of counties, as The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield reported last week.
The issue over unfunded mandates — that the Legislature has required new or increased levels of services by the counties but hasn’t provided adequate if any funding to carry them out — has been a sore spot for counties, cities and other local governments for years.
And state law, since 1995, backs up that beef, requiring the state “fully reimburse” the costs of new or increased services.
To make that point, the counties are preparing to challenge a state law passed in 2017 that required counties to increase the number of ballot drop boxes throughout the counties.
Other than to offer a grant program to help some economically distressed counties defray the cost of installing and operating and maintaining the drop boxes, the requirement came with no funding to support it. The grants were for $1,000 for each box. Snohomish County election officials, who were required to add 19 boxes last year to the county’s 12 boxes, have said the boxes cost up to $35,000 to install and $1,500 each year to operate and maintain.
Snohomish and six other counties last year submitted claims to the state seeking reimbursement for the costs incurred in adding drop boxes. Snohomish County’s claim of nearly $250,000, like the others, was denied.
A quarter-million dollars isn’t going to break Snohomish County or other counties, but it plainly shows what counties and other governments have faced in a mounting list of services that come without the resources to provide them.
Lewis County officials last year provided lawmakers a 19-page list of state mandates for which the county provides the majority of funding. Likewise, Kitsap County, at the same hearing estimated that it supports more than 80 percent of the costs of state mandates, amounting to $6.5 million of its 2017 budget.
If the point isn’t made with the ballot boxes, the counties have another unfunded mandate that they may litigate in 2019, regarding the costs to counties in providing public defenders or other representation to indigent criminal defendants. Counties spent $153 million in 2016 on public defenders but were only reimbursed for $6.2 million of that.
Those additional costs are borne by counties that are already constrained by state law that limits the increase they can set for their share of the property tax to 1 percent each year. With each new unfunded mandate, counties are forced to winnow down other services they are expected to provide.
“During this time, counties have been diverting funds from road maintenance, reducing investments in infrastructure, and leaving critical public safety positions unfilled,” the Washington Association of Cities said in a release about the potential litigation.
“What’s the difference?” goes the argument. Taxpayers ultimately pay, whether at the state or county level. But that ignores the limited ability that counties have to find new sources or revenue as compared to the freer hand that state lawmakers have and which they demonstrated in their solution for satisfying the McCleary mandate to fund basic education.
Nor are the pending lawsuits an argument against the laws themselves, whether for ballot boxes, public defenders or any other service that state lawmakers have determined counties and other local governments should provide. It’s simply a demand that lawmakers be realistic about the revenue that is necessary to provide those services.
State lawmakers, averse to making their own tough choices on taxes and spending, have passed the buck — but not the bucks — to counties and local governments.