Mandate relief and the tax cap

Too often, politicians and pundits speak in vague generalities when they prattle on about the state's need to cut "unfunded mandates." We're hearing it quite a bit from our candidates -- how their empty promises will bring about change in this regard. Hogwash.

Just about everyone knows the state has to do something about the costly situation, especially after imposing a 2 percent property tax cap on localities and school districts last year. Many of our local communities have already voted this autumn -- as is their wont -- to forego the rules and adopt budgets that surpass the unrealistic threshold.

Well, now the state Association of Counties has ratcheted up the push by releasing a comprehensive report that state officials ought to use as one of the bases for discussions about how to proceed. The association lists the usual suspects, including the state's high cost of Medicaid -- costs that are shared by the counties.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is aware he must do something soon about this program that provides health insurance for poor and disabled people. The state's spending on Medicaid is way out of line, and the federal government, which picks up about half the bill, is sure to cut back on New York's reimbursement. The governor's Medicaid Redesign Team has come up with dozens of recommendations, ranging from placing a spending cap on the program to putting a limit on medical malpractice damages. The state needs to implement these changes and more to hold down costs.

The Association of Counties has chapters on everything from preschool education to procurement. But in many cases, the association isn't arguing to get rid of the mandate, nor disagreeing with the merits of the mandate's intent. The association poignantly argues that, in many cases, the state could be more flexible, freeing counties to carry out child welfare programs, for example, without rigid staffing requirements as long as state objectives are being met.

Offering another concrete example, the association says counties should have more of a say in the placement and transportation of children in preschool special education, since counties have to pay for a big chunk of that program.

Essentially, the report states that transferring more decision-making power to county officials will help save money. It would allow officials closest to these challenges to be more nimble and work more cost effectively. In all, the report's authors put forth more than 50 recommendations for mandate relief. School districts, too, need relief.

The Cuomo administration cites several mandate-relief efforts, including the state taking over the growth of the counties' Medicaid costs for the next three years and freezing them by 2015. The state also enacted a new, less generous pension tier for public workers, which will save money -- but not in the short term.

The governor and other state officials must accept that, while the property tax cap was carried out wholeheartedly, mandate relief has lingered. It's time to level the playing field: The tax cap can't be sustained over a long period of time unless the state does more to curb these costs.

-- The Poughkeepsie Journal