Local mandates are latest entry in convoluted California saga 

In 1979, a year after California voters adopted Proposition 13 and tightly limited local property taxes, they decreed in another ballot measure that the state should reimburse schools and local governments for state-mandated costs they incur.

That seemingly straightforward decree, however, has evolved into a chronically convoluted wrangle over what is and what is not a reimbursable cost and how much money should flow from Sacramento into local coffers.

Thousands of school districts, cities, counties and special districts, the governor’s Department of Finance, legislative committees, lawyers, a special state bureaucracy called the Commission on State Mandates — and sometimes the courts — are enmeshed in a process that can be likened to a laboratory rat on a treadmill.

Two years ago — not for the first time — the State Auditor’s office chided the commission for failing to control a backlog of local claims for reimbursement, while the commission said that with just 11 employees it’s doing the best it can to catch up.

The Legislature wrote a new chapter of the saga in the 2011-12 budget by suspending “most mandates not related to law enforcement or property taxes,” thereby saving an estimated $233.5 million in reimbursements and deferring another $94 million in pending payments.

The suspension creates a dilemma for local officials — should they continue what they had been doing or stop doing things that no longer will qualify for reimbursements?

A case in point is a law that requires counties to allow any voter to obtain a mail ballot, which used to be called absentee voting.

The budget now declares counties aren’t required to let voters cast ballots by mail. The only exceptions are voters who are ill, will be absent from home on election day, are physically disabled, have “conflicting religious commitments,” or live more than 10 miles from their polling place.

The Secretary of State’s office notified local officials in a memo last month about the seven election procedure mandates now being suspended and urged them to continue mail voting, saying it will “likely save county election officials money in the current and future fiscal years.”

Unless reinstated, however, the mail voting requirement will be suspended at least through the June 2012 primary. It’s just another wrinkle in the long and complicated mandate story.

It may not be the biggest mess in state government, but it’s an example of how a simple issue becomes complicated when politicians, lawyers and bureaucrats get involved.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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Dan Walters

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