A state mandate is any action by a state legislature or governor that requires another branch or lower level of government to use its own funds to create, expand, or change a program, service, or standard. The higher level of government may provide some or all funds to offset costs. Mandates often concern education, transportation, health, or environmental regulation.
Mandates may be classified into three kinds: mandatory requirements, conditional requirements, and financial or policy restrictions. Mandatory requirements are those that require a local government to fulfill some standard or provide a service. For example, local governments may be required to hold elections on certain days of the month, or school districts may be required to hold 180 days of classes and start no sooner than September 1. Conditional requirements are those for which the state will provide funds if the local government agrees to modify its actions. A county public health agency may be given additional state funding if it agrees to provide influenza shots at low or no cost to county residents. The third kind, and perhaps the most contentious (from the point of view of local governments), is financial or policy restriction. These limit how and how often a local government may raise money. Several states do not permit local governments to raise taxes beyond a given percentage without a local referendum. School districts are often required to hold hearings and elections on increasing their debt load.
An often-heard complaint about mandates is that there are “too many.” In many cases, officials do not take exception to any particular mandate, but rather to how mandates are drafted. Most states now have some form of mandate review and reimbursement process in which local officials may offer complaints or suggestions, although some argue that these are only after-the-fact reviews and do little to improve state-local communications. Other states use up-front cost analyses (sometimes called “fiscal impacts” or “fiscal notes”) to estimate the financial burden of a mandate on a local government. The intent of these notes usually is to discourage so-called unfunded mandates and to slow the passage of mandates.
Mandates do provide a useful tool for state governments, however. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, state mandates are important to establish minimum levels of service throughout a state, maintain employee-employer standards, and assist the state in pursuing coherent economic development programs.
Legislative Mandates: State Experiences Offer Insights for Federal Action (Washington, DC: U.S. General Accounting Office, 1988); “Mandate Relief for Local Governments,” in Legisbrief (Denver, CO: National Conference of State Legislatures, 1994); and U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Mandates: Cases in State-Local Relations (Washington, DC: U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, 1978).