In 1979, a year after voters adopted Proposition 13 and tightly limited 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, running ever-faster but going nowhere.
Two years ago — not for the first time — the state auditor’s office rapped the commission for failing to control a backlog of local claims for reimbursement, while the commission says that with a small staff, 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 mandate 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.