Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed an end Tuesday to at least 20 unfunded state mandates on city and county governments, including a new obstacle for people trying to hold governments accountable through the Freedom of Information Act.
McDonnell called the recommendations a first step toward reducing burdens the state places on localities and pledged more to come.
“There are not many things I hate more as governor than unfunded mandates from Washington in the areas of the environment and health care,” the Republican governor said.
Advocates for Virginia cities and counties hailed the governor's efforts to curb duties and expenses pushed onto them without reimbursements for years by Congress and the General Assembly even as the mortgage and real estate industry collapse depleted the primary tax base for local governments. But the savings for city councils and boards of supervisors would be minimal.
“It's not anything that's going to turn around the financial straits that local governments now find themselves in, but it's good to see a governor finally take action to change something,” said Neal Menkes, director of fiscal policy for the Virginia Municipal League.
“They didn't deal with any of the major money mandates, but they said up front that they weren't going to do that,” said Dean Lynch, of the Virginia Association of Counties.
McDonnell's own budget proposal would require cities and counties together to pay an additional $1 billion in the next two years into the underfunded public employee pension system as the employer's share for school teacher retirement plans. The state is paying about $1.2 billion over that period as its employers' share for the Virginia Retirement System.
Other bills pending before the 2012 legislature would load more unreimbursed mandates on localities, including one that requires school districts to gather data for the state on pupils who are children of undocumented immigrants, and another that would force local law-enforcement officers to determine the immigration status of suspects during an arrest.
Asked whether he considers legislation by Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, to compel local school officials to prepare reports for the state on the effect children of illegal aliens have on their districts to be an unfunded mandate, McDonnell demurred. The governor said he was not familiar with the bill and would take a position should it win passage and land on his desk.
“That bill needs to go down in flames,” said Fluvanna County Board of Supervisors member Shaun Kenney, a conservative blogger and a member of McDonnell's task force on unfunded mandates.
Among McDonnell's recommendations are allowing school districts to set their own calendars and begin the academic year before Labor Day, ending the mandate that teachers receive civics education, and ending the authority circuit courts have to order localities to build new courthouses.
Localities would be able to implement their own guidelines for buying goods and services. The cost threshold at which city or county governments would have to solicit competitive bids or negotiations would be increased, though his proposal offers no specific limits.
Local governments would no longer have to give first priority for vending contracts to the Department of Blind and Visually Impaired. Nor would they have to seek Virginia Department of Transportation approval of sites for locally placed red light traffic enforcement cameras.
The requirement that requests for proposals for purchases and services for local governments be publicized in local newspapers would end, taking a major source of revenue for some community publications with it.
“All of those mandates cost localities more money, more burden and more time for very little public benefit,” McDonnell said.
Yet neither McDonnell nor members of the task force that developed the recommendations could estimate the costs savings for localities, particularly for his proposal to perhaps double the amount of time the law allows local governments to respond to FOIA requests.
The recommendation calls for stretching the period localities have to respond to initial FOIA records requests from five working days to seven. Several members of the task force who flanked McDonnell at his news conference said the deadline could be as many as 10 days. After that, governments would have to either provide the information or seek a seven-day extension. It would not apply to FOIA requests of state government.
Through Monday, McDonnell's FOIA proposal had not been introduced in legislation.
Megan Rhyne, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the proposal came without warning and that it's a clear dilution of the right of citizens to seek public information from local governments.
“Any time you propose to make such a broad change to Freedom of Information Act policy, it should first go through the FOIA Council for study and so all the stakeholders can have a say,” Rhyne said.
Patrick Herrity, a Fairfax County supervisor and member of the task force, denied that the longer deadline for FOIA compliance weakens public accountability. He said governments rarely meet the five-day timeline for producing the records people seek under the state law and seek extensions, so there would be little if any difference.
“This doesn't do anything to diminish government transparency,” he said.
The proposed change comes as more governments and agencies place more conditions and obstacles to public information. Some state agencies in the past two years have begun providing cost estimates in advance to people who submit detailed or specific records requests. Some estimates for requests made by The Associated Press in the past year have been in the thousands of dollars.