By: State Senator Katy Ives – April, 2017

Early Voting passed into law in 2014 and this past presidential election was the first in which residents were allowed to vote before Election Day. This is an advantageous concept for many people that want to vote but can’t get to the ballot box on one given day. It allows for greater convenience and the potential for an increase in participation. However, State Auditor Suzanne Bump recently released a finding that some provisions of the 2014 law that require Early Voting constitute an unfunded mandate, leaving cities and towns to address these costs without proper compensation.

Currently, absentee voting allows residents to vote early, but they must be absent from the city or town on Election Day or cannot go to the polls because of a physical disability or religious beliefs. Under the new law, voters do not need a specific reason to vote early. They are allowed to cast ballots during a designated twelve day early voting period.

The report indicated that municipalities were responsible for establishing an Early Voting polling location that gives voters privacy when casting their ballot and is staffed appropriately. Eighty percent of the 351 cities and towns surveyed responded to the Auditor’s office with estimates that totaled $719,708.25 in additional costs.

In response to this new unfunded mandate, I have co-sponsored a bill filed by Senator Bruce Tarr, SD2112, “An Act Fairly Funding Early Voting,” which would require the Commonwealth to reimburse municipalities for the costs of mandated Early Voting procedures and operations.

It is important for the Commonwealth to reimburse municipalities for the costs of administering Early Voting so that the initiative may continue to be offered to residents state-wide without burdening local budgets. Moreover, I support the further review of all unfunded mandates that impact municipalities and the services they provide to residents.

Along with co-sponsoring SD2112, I have filed S1747, “An Act Relative to Municipal Impact Statements” which would allow municipalities to be able to respond to proposed legislation and regulations before they become law in order to assess the financial impacts these mandates might have on cities and towns. A recent review by the Office of the State Auditor’s Division of Local Mandates (DLM) found that from 2011 through 2015, 97 statutory provisions became law that had a significant fiscal impact on local communities.

However, most of these laws did not meet the explicit definition of an unfunded mandate. DLM identifies when communities have been subjected to an unfunded mandate by the state. But, the Division is only allowed to issue determinations on state actions that meet the limited definition set by Local Mandate Law. The State Auditor did a 5-year statutory fiscal impact report that included legislative recommendations that will enhance DLM’s ability to evaluate costs imposed on cities and towns of the Commonwealth by legislation, and allow them to provide their expertise to lawmakers on ways to mitigate the obligations towns and school districts must assume. In addition, they will provide the Division with increased ability to assess the financial impacts of laws and regulations. This bill is one of those legislative recommendations.

For the 2017-2018 legislative session I also filed S.299 “An Act Related to Unfunded Mandates on Public Schools,” which would require the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to conduct an analysis of all new state laws, regulations, or administrative directives, including the cost on school districts and employees, the impact they have on learning time in the classroom and the overall impact they have on student achievement. I also filed S.1147 “An Act Creating a Commission to Study the Effects of Unfunded Mandates on Municipalities,” which would establish a commission to review unfunded mandates on municipalities.

Determining the true costs of laws and regulations, and deciding who will pay those costs is an important step in the rule-making process.