Taxes are assessed on the beleaguered public in so many ways that people often don’t even realize when it happens. They are hidden in our phone and utility bills and assessed on just about everything from cigarettes to tolls on roads and bridges, trailer registration, well permits, and on and on ad infinitum.
Our fearless political leaders also have perfected ways of levying taxes without having to ask voters for their consent or, for that matter, to even make them aware of what they (the politicians) are doing. This game has proven to be a politically useful and seemingly painless way of creating new taxes for favored programs that don’t necessarily have the support of the public. The concept works because voters don’t fully understand the process and are usually unaware of what is happening to them or when it happens.
It is brilliant in its simplicity. All the federal government does is require that states adopt certain programs or comply with various federal laws without providing the money to implement them. Figuratively speaking, with a single stroke of the pen, lawmakers are able to impose a wide variety of programs on the states at relatively little cost to the federal government.
Pretty neat, huh? Need or want something you can’t or don’t want to pay for, just pass a law that requires the states or local jurisdictions to provide it and have them shoulder the financial burden of paying for it.
The concept, which is generally known as “unfunded mandate,” is defined as “a statute that requires government or private parties to carry out specific actions, but does not appropriate any funds for that purpose.”
The idea has been so successful that many states have imposed their own “unfunded mandates” on cities and counties. What this accomplishes is to simply shift the costs down to the local level, where the taxpayers are forced to shoulder the burden of paying for them, thereby creating another tax without voter approval.
“Unfunded mandates” date back to feudal times, when serfs were required to turn over a portion of their crops or earnings to their lords, who eventually “insisted on the fulfillment of certain duties at the serfs’ own time and expense” (Wikipedia).
Legislators resort to many tricks to impose taxes on an unsuspecting or ill-informed public, but perhaps the most egregious is secrecy. And, “unfunded mandates” are generally adopted without most voters realizing what is happening, which makes them a form of stealth taxation. And that’s the problem.
However, the states have become increasingly active in resisting such laws. In a study titled “Home Rule: How States Are Fighting Federal Mandates” by Thomas Atwood, The Heritage Foundation reported on the impacts of “unfunded mandates.” Among his many observations, Atwood noted: “Aurora, Colo., for example, calculated that it would have to repair some 28,000 curbs in order to comply with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act at an average cost of $1,500 per curb.” (Note: With total projected revenue of $228.5 million and a capital budget of $336.1 million for 2006, it is clear that the $42 million cost of curb cuts was far more than the city could afford.)
“Anchorage, Alaska’s sewage inflow was so clean that the municipality could not meet Congress’ requirement that all sewage treatment facilities reduce incoming organic waste by at least 30 percent. Still, the federal Environmental Protection Agency insisted that the city meet the arbitrary standard. Anchorage’s response was to arrange for two local fisheries to dump fish viscera into the river so the city could remove them.”
“Arizona legislators complained that the Clean Air Act is too strict even for the naturally occurring dust from Arizona’s deserts, let alone automobile emissions.”
“The U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that the Clean Water Act alone cost cities with populations greater than 30,000 more than $3.6 billion in 1993. From 1994 through 1998, the 10 studied mandates will cost cities $54 billion.”
But, there is hope. The states have started to fight back. Bolstered by a growing grassroots movement to reassert constitutional limits on federal powers, they are taking a variety of actions to resist the federal government, including simply refusing to comply with federal mandates they can’t afford. For example, Atwood’s analysis noted, “Asserting they did not have the resources to implement the regulations, many law enforcement officials across the country ignored Brady Act gun control standards that require background checks on gun buyers.”
States also have been passing their own legislation to combat federal mandates, initiating lawsuits against the federal government based on the Tenth Amendment and other constitutional issues and suing to recover the costs of federally mandated programs for illegal immigrants.
But it remains to be seen just how much help the courts are likely to be in the states’ efforts to break free of the smothering grasp of the federal government. To date, they “have ruled that regulations set by federal agencies have the same force of law as associated legislation.”
In the final analysis, the Tenth Amendment may provide the answer to freeing the states from federal intervention and mindless bureaucratic interference in the lives of their citizens, but as with so many other problems, it will undoubtedly take a very long time for the process to play out.
However, there is an even bigger problem: the attitude of politicians that it is acceptable to pass legislation and levy taxes by hiding them from public view. That will require far more than litigating constitutional issues to cure. It will take an aroused, informed electorate that refuses to be bamboozled any longer and insists on electing representatives who will truly represent their constituents and not just themselves.
— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.