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Deukmejian Cutoff of Funds for ‘Mandates’ Could Cost the County

Times Staff Writer

In his final term in the Legislature, then-Sen. George Deukmejian wrote a bill to require that county probation reports in felony cases include statements from the convicted criminal’s victim. At the time, it seemed a simple enough step for a law-and-order legislator to take on behalf of victims throughout California.

But, 11 years later, Gov. George Deukmejian finds himself just as concerned with balancing the state budget as he is with locking up criminals. His probation report measure is now costing $1.6 million annually, under a statute that requires the state to reimburse counties for expenses imposed upon them by the Legislature.

So, on Tuesday, Deukmejian proposed that funding for his law and 26 others be deleted from the next state budget. Without that funding, the counties will be free to end the programs if they cannot afford to continue them with local tax revenue.

The governor’s decision to remove the 27 “mandates"--as the requirements are known--is ostensibly meant to take a burden off the counties. But David Janssen, San Diego County’s chief administrative officer, said he wonders whether the trade-off will work to the county’s advantage.

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County May Be Stuck With Bill

It is no secret that it is easier to create a government program or service than it is to abolish one. So, although the county will no longer be paid by the state for the 27 items, county officials will not necessarily be able to eliminate them. If the programs continue, the county will be stuck with the bill.

In 1987, for example, the Legislature and the governor eliminated the requirement that counties compensate jurors at the rate of $10 a day. The old minimum standard of $5 a day was reinstated, and state funding for the extra fees was deleted. But county supervisors got the blame when they passed the change along to the public.

“Many of these are services that are deeply woven into the way we do business,” Janssen said. “They may suddenly be discretionary, but you can’t simply wipe them off the books. You’re going to take the heat for the elimination of something you previously offered.”

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Some examples of the mandates targeted for elimination:

- Missing persons reports. A 1984 state law requires all local police and sheriff’s departments to accept and transmit any report of a missing person or runaway without delay. The law also requires police to take certain actions if the missing person is a minor. Implementation of this law now costs the state more than $10 million a year in reimbursements.

But a recent state Department of Finance report suggested that the requirement could probably be removed without harming the public.

“Since the program has been in effect for almost four years, local law enforcement agencies have undoubtedly developed procedures to comply with this mandate,” the report said. “If the program were now made optional, most agencies would probably continue to voluntarily do most of the tasks now required.”

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- Destruction of marijuana records. A 1976 law requires local law enforcement agencies to destroy records of marijuana convictions within two years after the convictions; or arrests not followed by convictions within two years after the date of arrest. This now costs the state $606,000 annually.

- Services for the deaf. A state law enacted in 1980 requires counties to have special Teletype equipment at a central telephone contact location to make emergency services accessible to the deaf. This now costs the state about $50,000 a year.

“Counties now have this equipment in place and most likely would repair or replace any unit which becomes inoperable even without a statutory requirement to do so,” the Department of Finance report said.

- Stranded motorists. A 1985 measure requires every law enforcement agency that enforces traffic laws to develop, adopt and implement a written policy for its officers to provide assistance to disabled motorists on highways within its jurisdiction. The cost to the state is $3.1 million a year.

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The Finance Department concluded that assisting stranded motorists “should be a normal part of good police practices, rather than a specific mandate by the state.”

- Absentee ballots. A 1978 law requires that an absentee ballot be provided to any registered voter who requests one, regardless of the reason. Previously, the law allowed absentee ballots to be distributed only to voters unable to vote in person because of illness, absence from the precinct on Election Day, physical handicap, conflicting religious commitments, or having a residence more than 10 miles from the polling place. The more relaxed standard is costing the state $3 million a year.

‘Fairly Subjective Review’

Fred Klass, an analyst for the Finance Department, said the mandates to be eliminated were chosen after a “fairly subjective review.”

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“We tried to look at whether we thought this was the best use of our last dollar,” Klass said. “We looked for mandates that appeared to be outmoded or so ingrained in what people were doing that they would continue to do them anyway.”

Klass acknowledged that the programs might be difficult for counties to eliminate, even if they are no longer obligated by the state to provide them.

“People get used to these services,” he said. “Someone had a reason for wanting them in the first place. But we had a tough budget, and we had to make determinations on what were high, and not so high, priorities.”

No New Laws Preferred

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County officials say they would prefer that the state, rather than eliminate mandates already in place, stop imposing new requirements.

“We want them to stop passing laws requiring us to do things and not giving us enough money to run them,” said John Sweeten, the county’s director of legislative affairs. “Once a program is in place, and we’re on the hook, they make a bad situation worse by stepping away from it.”

But, even as Deukmejian was offering to end the 27 mandates, he was proposing that counties, as part of a new state-funded program, be required to reimburse private hospitals for emergency room care they provide without compensation.

Janssen said he doesn’t know yet how much that program would cost the county. “That one provision sounds devastating,” he said.

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