Local government mandates–the bad news isn't that bad

As we reported last week, the 2009 legislative session was relatively calm for Oklahoma’s local governments. Last week’s post summarized the good news, including some greater control over governance and more land use planning tools. There is bad news, too. Local governments suffered some loss in powers, got new duties without help paying for them, and still hold a big IOU from the state. Other sessions have been worse, though. There is reason for relief in city hall and the courthouse. Here’s the rundown.

Bills that prohibit local governments from acting, also known as preemptions, are among the most serious for local governments, because they can keep the government from responding to demands from citizens. This year’s only example, HB 1473, is a minor one. It exempts agricultural  land 40 acres in size or larger from ordinances restricting land use and building construction when those areas are annexed into a city. This could mean cities can never rezone or restrict buildings on this property, even after it is developed. Here’s the Oklahoma Municipal League’s response, which references an earlier version with an even stricter 10-acre minimum.

Another group of bills impose unfunded mandates by adding to local responsibilities and costs without providing additional funding.

  • Police offices will be busier with non-core duties as a result of two new bills. HB 1509 adds persons convicted of assisting or harboring known sex offenders to the list of those who must register with local law enforcement authorities. HB 1049 expands open records responsibilities of law enforcement by making all incident reports available for public inspection rather than only those pertaining to an arrest. Most small police departments and county sheriff offices assign such duties to detectives or support personnel with already heavy workloads. As many local governments cut back on staffing due to the recession, these bills adds to the workload at an inopportune time.
  • SB 306 and HB 1424 add new requirements to local government regulation of building and land use. The first bill requires governments issuing residential building permits to obtain proof of workers compensation and workers compensation. Since 10,003 permits were issued last year, this will add to building officials’ workloads and to the weight of their filing cabinets. The second bill requires local governments to send a second notice to surrounding properties 30 days in advance of considering a zoning change for multifamily housing, group homes, and similar uses. Both bills could delay the planning and building processes and eventually may lead to increased fees for developers.

There are several other bills that impose relatively minor costs on local governments. One, SB 1166, serves as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong in the legislative process and how it can be righted. The final bill mandates that local governments create districts to provide statewide 911 service by 2012. It does, however, allow these districts to collect a previously authorized fee that covers part of the cost of service. Our earlier post describes an effort to lower this fee, which did not make the final bill. The locals will consider themselves lucky as a result.

For local governments, it’s a sign of a pretty good session when the biggest concern is not preemptions, mandates, or revenue losses, and that’s the case this year. Still, local leaders, especially those from cities, are fuming over the state’s failure to pay the traditional twelve and one-half percent share of federally declared disaster recovery costs. The state has normally paid these costs from an emergency fund that is occasionally replenished in the budget process. It’s out of money, however, and the Oklahoma Municipal League estimates local governments are waiting on $21 million in reimbursements for cleaning up from storms, ice damage, and fires in 2008. Since the Legislature adjourned without refilling the fund, cities and counties presumably will wait at least another year for satisfaction on this count. At least they don’t have too many other wounds to lick from this year’s session.


Paul Shinn

Paul Shinn served as Budget and Tax Senior Policy Analyst with OK Policy from May 2019 until December 2021. Before joining OK Policy, Shinn held budget and finance positions for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, the Department of Human Services, the cities of Oklahoma City and Del City and several local governments in his native Oregon. He also taught political science and public administration at the University of Oklahoma, University of Central Oklahoma, and California State University Stanislaus. While with the Government Finance Officers Association, Paul worked on consulting and research projects for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and several state agencies and local governments. He also served as policy analyst for CAP Tulsa. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from University of Oklahoma and degrees from the University of Oregon and the University of Maryland College Park. He lives in Oklahoma City with his wife Carmelita.

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