COLFAX — Long-standing frustrations over unfunded state mandates could prompt the Washington State Association of Counties to take legal action, possibly as soon as this week.
Whitman County Commissioner Michael Largent, who serves as second vice president of the association, said a lawsuit over a 2017 law dealing with ballot boxes could be filed any day.
“It should be filed the first part of June,” he said.
Counties have grumbled about unfunded mandates for years, but the complaints have grown in volume since 2001, when voters enacted a 1 percent cap on the annual growth in county property tax revenues.
The revenue limitation steadily erodes a county’s ability to pay for basic services, forcing them to cut corners on road maintenance, public safety and other areas.
Whitman County Public Works Director Mark Storey, for example, hopes the commissioners will ask voters to approve an increase in the county road levy this fall. While that’s driven largely by the 1 percent revenue cap, he said, the rise in unfunded state mandates simply exacerbates the problem. It’s gotten to the point that counties spend more time tracking money and documenting regulatory compliance than they do providing actual services.
“Those requirements don’t add value,” Storey said.
Largent said the greatest budget pressure counties face today isn’t the rising cost of goods, but the ever-increasing mandates from the state.
“The Legislature is the biggest inflationary factor in our cost of doing business,” he said.
Largent, together with many of his colleagues around the state, cites the ballot box mandate as a clear example of this.
In 2017, state lawmakers required counties to provide at least one ballot drop box in every city and town within their jurisdiction — as well as any census designated place that has a post office — regardless of how many registered voters might live there.
In Whitman County alone, that amounted to 16 drop boxes for fewer than 15,000 registered voters — despite the fact that the state now pays the postage for the mail-in ballots. Besides being secured and maintained, the boxes must be emptied regularly throughout the 18-day voting period, by at least two people.
In a 2018 story on voter turnout, Largent described the requirement as “an egregious example of an unfunded state mandate.”
“It involves significant capital and ongoing costs, and gains us nothing as far as (voter) participation,” he said.
From a legal perspective, the Washington State Association of Counties believes the ballot boxes represent a clear violation of state statutes, which prohibit the Legislature from imposing responsibility “for new programs or increased levels of service under existing programs” on cities or counties unless it fully reimburses them for the costs.
Largent noted that suing the state is a novel approach for the association, which historically has relied on lobbying lawmakers and trying to educate them about the costs and impacts of state mandates.
“There was a lot of angst with respect to (filing a lawsuit),” he said. “It’s not our desire to have an adversarial relationship. We’d rather have a partnership. (But) there’s been a great deal of frustration the last few years, because our message isn’t getting through.”
The lawsuit comes on the heels of the 2019 legislative session, when lawmakers approved an $8 billion, 17 percent increase in state spending, even as they largely ignored county concerns.
“It wasn’t a great session for county fiscal sustainability,” said Mellani McAleenan, director of government relations for the Washington State Association of Counties.
For example, the association supported legislation that would slowly increase state support for public defense costs, but the measure didn’t go anywhere.
Public defense represents the largest unfunded state mandate, McAleenan said. Collectively, counties spend about $156 million per year for the service at the trial court level, compared to just $6 million from the state.
Other unfunded or under-funded state mandates range from public health services to vehicle registrations and public safety regulation.
The Washington State Association of County Auditors also proposed legislation this session calling for the state to pay its share of elections costs, just like any other jurisdiction. The measure, which would have saved counties about $11 million every two years, went nowhere.
While public defense and elections represent much larger unfunded mandates, Largent said the association opted to move forward with the ballot box lawsuit first because it was a new program that clearly wasn’t properly funded.
“We’re looking for some early wins, so we want to pick a case with the best chance for success,” he said.
If that option doesn’t get the message across, Largent said, the association continues to build the case for a potential lawsuit over public defense costs.
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