Pay up or butt out

Published 9:05 am Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Any Southampton High School alum who took Mrs. Moore’s U.S. government course can tell you all about unfunded mandates.

An unfunded mandate is a law passed by the state government that requires a local government to perform actions or provide services without allocating any funds to carry out the ordinances. It thus falls to the local governments to come up with the necessary capital.

This, friends, is a major contribution to our county’s financial struggle.

It is nearly impossible to calculate the amount of money necessary for any given locality to pay for these mandates because state and federal governments very rarely consider the cost.

As of September 2014, there are more than 650 unfunded mandates on the books for Virginia localities according to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

Nearly 250 of these regulations affect America’s public school systems. According to state and federal law, Virginia schools must provide free textbooks, scoliosis screenings and transportation to and from school free of charge. They must provide professional development for teachers and administrators, severance packages and other benefits. The most famous unfunded mandate affecting education is the No Child Left Behind Act. This rule stipulates that all public schools in the United States must administer standardized testing. No funds are put forward by the state or federal governments to assist localities in covering these costs.

Another more controversial mandate, Medicaid, is the subject of dozens of legal challenges. The federal government provides only half the funds necessary to implement the health care program, and the individual states are expected to shoulder the rest.

Southampton County recently had to pay for the replacement of all of its voting machines due to a decree by the state government. The county had to borrow more than $100,000 to cover the cost.

These requirements, not ruinous by themselves, build upon each other to create mountains of bills and banknotes that bear local governments’ names.

In localities like Franklin, Isle of Wight and Southampton, which have few rainy day funds lying around to pay for these add-ons, government officials are often forced to raise taxes.

And when you have supervisors like those in Southampton, who adamantly refuse to raise taxes for the sake of their constituents, there can be some interesting legal and financial acrobatics to ensure that all outstanding balances get paid. This limits the abilities of local governments to invest in economic development.

The unfunded mandates in affect make it more difficult for local governments to keep a balanced budget while providing the services dictated by law.

By forcing local governments to pay for state and federal initiatives without providing any additional money to fund them, government officials are making it extremely difficult for local governments to stay in the black while carrying out their duties and providing the services that their constituents need.

As long as residents and local government officials remain silent about these ill-planned laws, then we deserve to be buried under the mountains of debt.

Walter Francis Jr. is a student at American University and is serving as a staff writer for The Tidewater News this summer. Email him at