State 'mandates' are like cockroaches: hard to kill

First published in Newsday.

Newsday's editorial board frequently meets with people in public life: school superintendents, state and local elected officials, law-enforcement agents. And one question that comes up all the time is how to reduce the cost of public services.

It was an issue back when the only urgency was New York's position as No.1 or No.2 in the nation with the highest combined state and local tax burden - a "distinction" New York trades from year to year with New Jersey. Now, as the Great Recession has tightened the screws on public budgets everywhere, the question is more pointed: Which will it be, raise taxes or cut services?

Elected officials, candidates and community leaders usually don't want to choose between these unpopular alternatives. Sometimes they try a dodge: "Cut waste, fraud and abuse!" Hard to argue with that. No one ever campaigns for more inefficiency, dishonesty and corruption.

The other dodge - or at least that's how I thought of it until recently - was, "Cut unfunded mandates!"

"Mandates" come up often as the culprit forcing unnecessary costs on local governments and agencies - but ask for an example, and people have trouble responding. It's not that the problem doesn't exist; it's that it's so pervasive, and it's hard to know where to begin.

Mandates were once well-meaning state rules for how municipalities and school districts should do business. Now, the rules have hardened in concrete. They're bureaucracy; they're micromanagement. And, as of December, they're available in 40 pages of highly descriptive detail - 238 separate mandates - that a task force spent nearly a year compiling for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The report from the 2011 Mandate Relief Redesign Team lists burdensome rules and paperwork like a bundle of hard knots. Permit local governments to make discretionary purchases on public works projects up to $50,000, instead of $35,000. Reduce time-consuming requirements surrounding foster care reports, while still making them useful to the courts. Allow nursing homes to keep some records electronically.

Cuomo has highlighted mandate relief in two subsequent State of the State speeches - in 2011 and again early this month. In fact, he said pretty much the same thing both times: We need to fix the problem. He had to repeat himself because, while the redesign team did come up with a long list of mandates, it got very little relief accomplished.

Why? Well, first, the team of 27 - representing schools, municipalities, the State Legislature, business and civic organizations - had to agree on which mandates to relieve. The members came up with just $410 million worth - a small drop in a $132.5-billion state budget sea. Of that, the legislature wiped out just 22 mandates - for an estimated statewide savings this year of $125 million. State agencies can save another $40 million by rewriting regulations.

Mandate relief was supposed to ride a white horse to rescue municipalities and school districts from the tough new 2 percent cap on property tax growth they must begin living with this year; $165 million won't do it.

Rather than admitting defeat, the governor and State Legislature formed a Mandate Relief Council - 11 members, including state bureaucrats and legislators - to consider the other 216 mandates. Cause for optimism is slight.

Former Gov. David A. Paterson used to float an idea that all state rules should expire at a certain date unless legislators voted to keep them. That's drastic, but it may be New York's only real hope of undoing the knotty bureaucracy that yokes this tax burden to citizens' shoulders.