WHEN THE LEGISLATURE implemented early voting by mail during the pandemic, the state paid for some staff time for local election workers and postage costs. But not all city and town costs were repaid, said Foxborough clerk Bob Cutler, president of the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association. “Some of that could be considered an unfunded mandate,” Cutler said.
On Wednesday, Auditor Suzanne Bump released a report naming 29 bills passed during the last five years that have had a “substantial impact on municipal budgets and operation.”
Bump said in a statement that the report details “how despite legislation having good intentions, there can be unforeseen cost elements associated, which can come in a variety of ways from adding staffing requirements, to adjusting formulas to determine costs, and requiring new services.”
Under state law, legislators cannot impose unfunded mandates on cities and towns. Bump stopped short of naming any of the bills as unfunded mandates, since that designation requires a community to petition Bump’s office. But the report could be the first step in that process.
A community may now choose to challenge one of these bills as an unfunded mandate, and Bump’s office will then decide whether to officially designate it as an unfunded mandate. If she does, the Legislature must reimburse municipalities for the costs or eliminate the mandate.
A classic example is early voting. When Woburn and Oxford challenged the law allowing early voting in 2016 as an unfunded mandate, Bump found in their favor. Now, Bump’s office collects information each year on communities’ early voting costs, determines the cost, and instructs the Legislature to reimburse municipalities.
In the review, Bump’s Division of Local Mandates looked at 1,629 bills signed into law between 2016 and 2020. The 29 that had municipal impacts included several of the Legislature’s major accomplishments.
Her report found that the Student Opportunity Act, which rewrote the education funding formula to give more money to districts, could cause additional spending and impose planning requirements on some districts that are not getting aid boosts. Overall, seven of the bills deal with education, including requiring schools to screen for substance use disorders, requiring schools to have an automated defibrillator, and requiring schools in poor districts to serve breakfast after the start of the school day.
The 2018 criminal justice reform law imposed requirements on local police agencies related to training, processing rape kits, expunging criminal records, and crafting rules for school resource officers.
The 2020 police reform law requires municipal police officers to complete more training, become certified by a new commission, and keep additional records, and also makes municipalities vulnerable to litigation if officers violate the law.
A municipal modernization law, which mainly addressed items requested by municipalities, included certain record-keeping and audit requirements and created a new reimbursement formula for state-owned land that disadvantaged some towns.
A public records law overhaul included new requirements for safely maintaining public records and designating a records access officer, while limiting the ability to charge for records requests.
Six bills relate to elections, like expanded requirements for early voting and mail-in voting. Another six relate to municipal employee benefits.
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said in a statement that the report “expertly documents the fiscal pressures that municipalities face as they seek to deliver core services to community residents.”