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Rhetoric on unfunded mandates doesn’t match action

February 15, 2012

Town and school officials have made a big deal this year about how unfunded and underfunded mandates from both the state and federal governments are putting a significant drag on the school budget, and that Town Hall can’t control some of the increased costs of these mandates.

In particular, the Special Education budget takes up almost a fourth of the entire Walpole school budget, and most of it is required by a tangle of mandates that are simply not properly funded.

Since our legislators aren’t responsible enough to fund these initiatives themselves, Walpole officials say our property taxpayers should pick up the tab instead.

I have a better idea that will actually fix the issue. This is an election year. In just a few months, every Walpole voter will have the opportunity to vote out the legislators who continue to perpetuate this problem.

Yet shockingly, many town officials have demonstrated an unwillingness to support efforts to remove these legislators. A few current top town board members have publicly supported the re-election campaigns of some legislators who have provided a lot of rhetoric but very little action when it comes to relieving the burdens on cities and towns.

Walpole is fortunate to have four state representatives, including one Republican, and a state senator who lives in town. So far, none of the four Democrats, including two who are considered to be very close to House leadership, have signed on to co-sponsor or even sponsor any bills currently languishing in the state legislature to fully fund mandates on cities and towns.

If it’s true that a significant part of the blame for Walpole’s fiscal crisis should be placed on our state and federal elected officials, there’s no reason that any Walpole official should support any of these legislators this year. And though these legislators offer a lot of talk about how they oppose unfunded mandates, so do legislators from basically every other community in the state – and yet behind the promises appear to be nothing.

Walpole Rep. John Rogers (D-Norwood) recently announced that he would push for the full funding of a mandate for the transportation of homeless children by the Walpole school district. In two decades in the legislature, this is apparently the best Rogers can do when it comes to unfunded mandates – only after the State Auditor ruled that the state had to fund this mandate anyway, because it was in violation of the state’s mandates law.

This year, voters shouldn’t be fooled again. Walpoleans should simply vote their legislators out, rather than perpetuate the problem.

The problem of underfunded mandates will only continue if legislators realize that local officials are simply passing the buck to their property taxpayers to deal with. That’s not fair, and it’s not the best way to solve the problem. Avoiding addressing the real cause of the mandates problem is also not “sustainable” for this town or any other town in Massachusetts.

There is also clearly something very wrong with the relationship between municipalities and state government in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Municipal Association, which is supposed to advocate on behalf of cities and towns at the state level, spent about $300,000 in taxpayer dollars in 2011 to lobby state legislators – and little significant results appear to have come from it in terms of relieving the burden on cities and towns.

The MMA hasn’t even updated the legislative advocacy page on its website since the 2009-2010 legislative session, calling into question whether that organization is really as committed to the fight for municipal relief at the legislative level as they claim to be. If they can’t even take the time to update their website with new legislative priorities and a comprehensive list of what they are fighting for, one has to wonder whether their lobbying effort is getting just as stale as their website. Are our tax dollars being well spent with the MMA?

A concerted, coordinated statewide effort to actively push state legislators to properly fund their unfunded mandates until they can’t ignore the voices of the people must take place. Frankly, I’m not convinced such an effort has ever taken place – why do so many elected officials consistently talk about supporting their cities and towns but yet nothing ever gets done? Property taxpayers are on the hook here – it is time for legislators to hear the concerns of their constituents.

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