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July 31, 2012 | By | Posted in Legislature

Municipalities could get relief from costly state mandates

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania has thousands of laws, and about 6,500 of them tell local governments what to do.

Local government officials often cite the “mandates” when they talk about out-of-control budget increases, about keeping the burden off the local property taxpayer.

But state officials will consider ways to keep the mandates to a minimum, or even how much they’re telling local governments to spend.

The state Senate this fall will hear proposed reforms from the Local Government Commission’s Mandate Study Task Force, a group made up of state lawmakers and municipal representatives.

The commission is finishing up a report focusing on what can be done to reverse existing mandates, and to stop future ones.

The final report will be delivered in October.

Phillip Klotz, assistant director of the Local Government Commission, gave a brief of summary of the first draft Tuesday, when it was distributed to task force members for comment.

The first step was getting a handle on the amount of laws in Pennsylvania that constitute a “mandate,” or a statute directing action of municipal governments, along with associated costs.

The report — in addition to citing the 6,500 laws affecting local governments — includes survey results from counties and municipalities on laws they find “most burdensome” in terms of cost, labor and time.

But the proposed reform measures are the meat of the report.

One of the biggest changes would require a fiscal analysis on how legislation affects local governments, before it’s passed. That could mark a culture change — any number-crunching by legislative staffers addresses costs to the state government, though not necessarily the governments that implement the law and are responsible for its costs.

State Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, chairman of the Senate Local Government Committee and a member of the Local Government Commission, said not all lawmakers consider the costs to local governments when passing legislation.

Presenting them with an analysis could prevent laws that burden Pennsylvania’s taxpayers, he said.

“We get a lot of push back from the local government organizations asking us to please help with things,” he said. “If we push things down to the local level, folks have to pay for it there. We’re just shifting the tax burden.”

Doug Hill is the executive director for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, representing local lawmakers statewide. He said state laws drive 80 percent to 90 percent of a county’s budget. But it’s not total relief they’re looking for, Hill said, as counties share the same priorities as the state.

Rather, it’s how some laws are administered in terms of cost and procedure.

“To the extent you are telling us very specifically what to do, make sure you accompany the mandate with the proper level of funding,” Hill said.

E.J. Knittel, senior director of education and sustainability for the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs and a member of the task force, said legislators, before passing laws, should consider where they’re placing costs.

“When you’ve got 2,500 different municipal governments out there, not counting school districts, you end (up) with a large impact on a little item,” he said.

Knittel said state mandates are often outdated. He pointed to the required publication of legal notices, which amounts to 6-point font in four lines in the back of a newspaper’s classifieds section.

In an age of declining print subscriptions, Knittel said he questions spending real tax dollars on those notices.

“Legal notices in a newspaper can run a municipality easily $19,000 a year,” he said. “That’s a part-timer, that’s a lot of potholes to be patched and a few other projects.”

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Melissa Daniels is a reporter for PA Independent. She can be reached at 717-350-0962 or Melissa@PAIndependent.com

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