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Just say no to mandates without money

Students of American history are familiar with the phrase, "No taxation without representation!" The idea that King George's government would tax the American colonies, but deny his subjects living there fair representation in exchange, was one of the leading causes of the American Revolution. As a result, throughout our nation's 214-year history, taxpayers have always had the power to affect how much they pay for government. They do it with the ballot, voting in or out the officials directly responsible for setting their taxes.

But the echoes of the revered revolutionary battle cry have grown faint. Local taxpayers are finding themselves indirectly paying the bill for government programs and services with no way to exercise their direct right of veto at the ballot box.

Unfunded mandates to county and city government are a growing menace. County governments across the nation were asked earlier this year what their greatest problems were. They listed many problems, but establishing some limits on unfunded mandates from state government was a high priority.

What are unfunded mandates? They occur when the U.S. Congress or a state legislature requires local governments, either cities or counties, to establish new services or programs without providing either the funding or an adequate funding source to pay for them.

In Florida, the state Legislature uses mandates to avoid the political upheaval and consequences of instituting new programs while still getting those programs going. Individual legislators can use the mandate route to guarantee funding for desired programs and services in their own districts while getting taxpayers in other districts to pick up the tab, even though they don't get any benefits.

Believe it or not, there is a law on the books in Florida prohibiting unfunded mandates on local government. Adopted in 1978, it began to be ignored in 1979 by legislators who have stacked mandate onto mandate since. In 1981, there were 21 state mandates. Now there are more than 350.

The problem with unfunded mandates is not the mandates themselves or a particular mandate. The problem is one of accountability.

If the Pinellas County Commission decides next week to start a new program and raise taxes to pay for it, voters here can register their objections at the weekly commission meeting and at the ballot box. If they aren't satisfied, the whole commission can be held accountable.

But Pinellas County voters don't have the same power over the 160 members of the Legislature. They have no direct appeal if the Legislature tells the County Commission to provide a service taxpayers don't want and raise taxes to support it.

Luckily, we can vote to curtail the scourge of unfunded mandates on Nov. 6. We can vote yes for proposed Amendment No. 3, which will limit the power of legislators to pass unfunded mandates.

Proposed Amendment No. 3 is not a blanket prohibition of unfunded mandates. If approved, it will require the Legislature to provide funding or a funding source to local governments for mandated programs. But if the Legislature decides that a fiscal emergency exists requiring the passing of an unfunded mandate, it can do so _ but only with a two-thirds vote of approval in both the House and Senate.

There are other provisions of the proposal which exempt the funding of existing pension programs, general appropriation acts, criminal laws and more from coverage of the amendment.

But the proposed amendment will chisel into the state Constitution, the foundation upon which rests the power the state and local governments have in Florida, safeguards from unwarranted, unfunded state mandates.

The campaign for the amendment has also served to educate the public to the problem of unfunded mandates. Once approved, the people will remind their representatives of their duty should those representatives forget it.

"No taxation without representation" still echoes in the halls of government, though faintly. With the passage of proposed Amendment No. 3 in November, that hallowed battle cry will echo more loudly, both in the state house and the courthouse.

Barbara Sheen Todd is a Pinellas County Commissioner.