The NCSL Blog

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By Jeff Hurley

NCSL President and Utah Senate President Pro Tempore Curt Bramble (R) carried a simple message to Congress at a Senate subcommittee hearing last Wednesday: "Knock it off.”

SNCSL President Curt Bramble testifies before Congress on unfunded mandatestop enacting laws that shift federal costs to states. Stop implementing federal regulations without consulting with state and local officials. Provide more information on the true costs of federal actions on states.

The hearing focused on how Congress could make improvements to the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA) of 1995.  UMRA was adopted in an attempt to limit unfunded federal mandates and promote cooperative federalism. While NCSL supported, and is still supportive, of the act, time has shown that it contains a variety of loopholes that have ultimately marginalized its legislative intent.

Bramble testified before the Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. In his testimony he reiterated NCSL’s concerns during his testimony, particularly the need for additional safeguards to protect states with respect to federal unfunded mandates.

While UMRA requires the Congressional Budget Office to score unfunded mandates, its definition of a mandate is narrow and thereby doesn’t capture the full scope of how federal actions affect a state's bottom line. These exclusions and exemptions, such as establishing new conditions of grant aid, fall outside the parameters of UMRA and force states to meet the demands of increased unfunded mandates without the federal accountability UMRA was intended to guarantee.

Senator Bramble chats with (from left), fellow panelist Bryan Desloge, first vice president, National Association of Counties and Leon County (Florida) commissioner, and U.S. Senator James Lankford (R-Okla).When asked for examples by subcommittee chairman Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.) on significant mandates excluded by UMRA, Bramble mentioned the lack of federal commitment to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the “voluntary” nature of entitlement programs such as Medicaid.

So what’s the solution? U.S. Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), a former NCSL Executive Committee member, and Lankford have introduced legislation that would address several issues raised by Bramble by making common sense improvements to UMRA. The Unfunded Mandates Information and Transparency Act (UMITA; S. 189) strengthens the analysis and oversight of federal intergovernmental mandates on state and local governments by expanding UMRA’s scope of reporting requirements and enhancing agency consultation with state and local governments. A bipartisan counterpart to UMITA (H.R. 50), sponsored by U.S. Representative Virginia Foxx (R-N.C), passed the House last February. NCSL and other state and local groups recently sent a letter to Fischer and Lankford, and fellow co-sponsors of UMITA supporting these provisions.

As UMRA begins its third decade, increased transparency and accountability is needed to address unfunded federal mandates. Without improvements to UMRA the financial impact of federal legislative or regulatory action on state governments will continue to be overlooked. And as federal mandates continue to pose an undue burden on state governments, states will continue to make the same statement to congress: knock it off.

Jeff Hurley is committee director for the Budgets and Revenue Committee in NCSL’s Washington, D.C., office.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.