Unfunded mandates are regularly lambasted as an expensive burden that curbs job growth and overloads budgets, but their defenders say some of them get a bad rap and might even save your life.
Unfunded mandates are generally considered to be any regulation or requirement that the state decides not to pay for. These mandates end up being paid for by local governments, private businesses, schools and basically any organization operating in the state.
With the advent of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, there has been a renewed focus on eliminating unfunded mandates, which has included the Mandate Relief Redesign Team, plus a package of legislation to eliminate about $125 million in unfunded mandates and to create the Mandate Relief Council.
And while some unfunded mandates are outdated or ill-conceived, there are others whose merits are being downplayed or have happy constituents whose voices are being drowned out.
“When you look at a mandate, any mandate, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the mandate was put into place for a reason,” said New York State United Teachers spokesman Carl Korn. “At some point, advocacy groups, researchers and legislators came together and decided something was a good idea.”
He cited requirements in special education, remedial education and teacher evaluations as examples of smart policy areas that are simply funded from the wrong place. State funding has been cut in all of these areas in recent years, which has put a heavier burden on cash-strapped school districts. “It’s not the mandate that’s the problem, it’s the failure of the state to pay for it,” Korn said.
Alliance for Quality Education spokeswoman Nikki Jones critiqued the attack on Academic Intervention Services, which supports students who aren’t able to keep up with state proficiency standards. She said the state has shifted away its funding responsibility and has forced more and more costs onto schools,
One unfunded education mandate Korn singled out was a requirement to have a defibrillator in a school building, which can be a pricey proposition for a district with lots of buildings. “I don’t think anyone would advocate removing these lifesaving devices to save a few dollars,” he said.
Safety is also a major concern for Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, who speaks out for unfunded mandates that may have some up-front costs for businesses but prevent injuries and can have long-term savings. “There are a lot of necessary policies that could be classified as mandates, but I wouldn’t ever want to think of working environments without them,” he said.
Worker’s compensation, the minimum wage, unemployment insurance and safety regulations are all types of unfunded mandates that benefit society as a whole, he said.
It was a matter of perspective, Cilento argued, saying “One person’s mandate is another person’s protection.”
He cited proposed changes to the “Scaffold Law,” which makes property owners and contractors fully liable for workplace accidents regardless of fault. It would be a mistake to ease these protections, he said, because they benefit workers. “The burden on businesses and insurers pales in comparison to the burden borne by injured workers, or worse the widows and orphans left behind,” he said.
Sometimes the benefit can be less obvious than an accident avoided. An example is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which is a compact that was entered into by a group of Northeastern states to create a carbon market for businesses.
“It’s called a job killing tax by its opponents,” said Environmental Advocates of New York Air & Energy Program Director Ross Gould.
He argued that it has become an easy target by its detractors because of the obvious costs to businesses, but contended that the benefits outweighed the complaints. The state raises money that it invests into renewable energy projects, which creates jobs and ultimately leads to lower energy bills for consumers.
Gould added that there is also a reduction in emissions as a result, which has led to improved air quality and therefore less health related costs.