Redefining the state-local partnership”

State Sen. Tom O'Mara
Sen. Tom O'Mara

I predicted earlier this year that the current legislative session would provoke strong reactions. Any time you start wading into the kinds of fundamental changes being considered in Albany at the moment, it’s just not going to sit well with everyone.   

Among all the changes being thrown into the mix early on, none may have more of an impact on the future of  local communities and local taxpayers than the one commonly called “mandate relief.”  It’s without question the one that’s become the call to arms among local leaders across the state, and it could turn out to be the crossroads that determines the success of the 2011 session.   

So it’s no surprise that last week’s initial report from the “Mandate Relief Redesign Team” appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in January is drawing such a strong reaction.  This first effort by this team of private- and public-sector leaders to tackle a deep-rooted system of mandates doesn’t go far enough for anyone’s liking. It especially falls well short of offering the specific, short-term actions many are looking for to provide immediate, meaningful relief.   

But here’s one thing it does accomplish for now, and it’s something that I think has some value: it keeps building the political pressure that’s going to be needed to force action on the issue.  I’ll say this, when’s the last time the issue of mandate relief has received so much focused attention in Albany?  Maybe never.   

Here’s something else to not overlook.  A lot of different people are going to have a lot of different ideas on how best to get at this mandate crisis – politically and practically. The potential strong point of the current strategy is that it’s keeping the stakeholders together in the room, so to speak, until they work it out.  The group collectively represents state legislators, mayors, county executives, town superintendents, school administrators and teachers, private-sector employers, public employees, and government reform advocates.

In other words, Governor Cuomo now has a lot riding on meaningful, successful mandate relief, beginning this year.  In my view, that means we may have the best shot we’ve ever had for real action.   

The New York State Association of Counties framed the issue of state mandates pretty dramatically late last year with a report that summarized the local property tax burden this way, “Individual counties have little control over the amount and use of these local taxes.  In fact, 9 state mandates consume $4 billion or 90 percent of the $4.4 billion in property taxes collected statewide.”  In other words, local leaders argue, our hands are tied (and our budgets are determined) by unfunded and underfunded state mandates.  Point taken, and it’s emerging as a driving force in building the political momentum for the change that’s needed.

But there can’t be any let up.  That’s the underlying value of this first report.  Its early reviews are weak, as they should be, but there’s no denying that it’s already sparked even more urgency for serving up more specific recommendations for a short- and long-term restructuring of the state-local relationship.

The new report is pretty straightforward about it, “The State relies on its municipalities and school districts to deliver vital services to its residents and often prescribes exactly how these services should be provided.  This limits flexibility and increases costs…Although well-intentioned, the unwillingness of state government to give greater decision-making power and management flexibility to local governments drives up the costs of services.”

It’s perfectly clear that we must redefine the state-local partnership within the context of mandates.  At its core, this issue stands for the era ahead – an era that demands smarter government, more cost effective programs and services, fiscal accountability, and less reliance upon the local property taxpayer to foot the bill. Last week’s report, then, stands as the true opening of the discussion.  Most importantly, it reinforces the critical point: it’s about property tax relief and mandate relief.  You can’t achieve one without the other.  We can differ on how to get there, but there’s no arguing that that’s where we’re headed.  So it’s worthwhile reading for anyone closely following the issue, and it’s available online through my website, www.omara.nysenate.gov.