By Louis N. Magazzu
In 1995, New Jersey voters approved a state constitutional amendment that was supposed to curb state mandates that increased property taxes. To implement the law, the Legislature established the Council on Local Mandates to determine whether new statutory or regulatory impositions constitute illegal "unfunded" mandates.
Under the law, any statute or regulation that the council deems "unfunded" ceases to be mandatory and expires.
Twelve years later, the council has made only eight decisions. That's one every 18 months. In only two of those cases did the council rule in favor of local governments. And in one of those two cases, the decision was pointless because the council has no power to force the state to comply, and local governments have no right to seek redress in the courts.
Clearly, this is not what people thought they were voting for in 1995. Indeed, property taxes in New Jersey have nearly doubled since then. The New Jersey Association of Counties, of which I am president, proposes, therefore, a complete overhaul of the Council on Local Mandates.
First, we should seek to change its composition. Currently, members are appointed by the governor, the Legislature, and the state's chief justice - in other words, the makers of mandates. Even worse, they must not be current or former local officials. That's a curious omission since the council's only purpose is to protect local governments from being steamrolled by the state.
A second glaring flaw is that state appointees, such as judges and prosecutors, can force county governments to hire court personnel and expand facilities. In Cumberland County, where I serve as a freeholder, the prosecutor prevailed in a case that forced us to spend millions of dollars to increase his staff and expand his office. Even though these expenses are mandatory, we may not seek relief from the Council on Local Mandates. That's a very big loophole.
While state officials can appeal to the courts, local officials don't have that option. The council's decisions are not eligible for judicial review, so when it decides in favor of the state, county and municipal officials may not seek relief. Even when it sides with local government, the state can ignore its decision without consequence.
Two provisions are needed: Allow local officials to go to court, and make the state comply when it loses.
Finally, we must also review the section of the law delineating the exemptions. For example, mandates imposed before 1996 cannot be challenged. That guarantees that property taxpayers must keep paying for the most expensive mandates. But if the Council on Mandates can't review all mandates, what's the point?
When the people of New Jersey voted to curb "unfunded" mandates, they no doubt intended for a stronger, more comprehensive limit on the state's ability to impose new costs without paying for them. Mayors, council members, and school district officials should join us in calling for real reform this time.