Elected leaders of Washington’s 39 counties are fed up with lawmakers and governors telling them what to do without providing enough money to do it.
Now those leading the counties may sue those leading the state to make them stop.
The Washington State Association of Counties is amassing $400,000 to use in 2018 for this effort. It will come from a special assessment approved last month by county representatives guiding the organization. The money will come out of the budgets of each county.
Of the total, a quarter is earmarked for a stepped-up campaign of communicating their concerns to lawmakers in the upcoming 60-day legislative session. The rest is reserved for hiring an attorney and undertaking legal action as a way to get lawmakers’ attention.
County leaders think suing may create a different dynamic that will get lawmakers to hear them better, said Josh Weiss, legislative director and general counsel for the county association.
“It is a last resort. We want to make our case very well known first,” he said.
The frustration stems from the penchant of legislators to pass laws that require county governments provide a certain service or program but not sending along enough moolah to carry it out. Governors are complicit by signing the laws.
In the vernacular of government, these are known as unfunded mandates. In offices of county council members, they call them unfair and sometimes a few other unprintable names.
This discontent isn’t new. Counties have been expressing concern with passage of unfunded or underfunded mandates back to the state’s earliest days.
The problem is more pronounced these past couple years as the economy generates billions of extra dollars for the state’s coffers while still not producing enough new revenue for counties to keep up with their rising costs.
For most counties, the single largest underfunded mandate is providing a public defender or other attorney to represent the individuals the court deems to be indigent. This typically adds up to millions of dollars in even the smaller counties.
One of the newest mandates involves ballot drop boxes. Originally considered a convenience for voters, they are now a mandated piece of voting equipment per a 2017 state law. That same law means putting them in every town with a post office.