by Beverly Stein
I’ve been in both state and local government. I served in the Oregon legislature for three terms where I thought of myself as a friend to local government. Then I served for eight years as the head of the largest county in Oregon and used to quip “You should be required to serve in local government before you serve in the state legislature — otherwise you just don’t get it!”
I also worked for nine months in the State of Iowa on a PSG Transformation Partnership Team with Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack. Among our projects was working to improve the relationship between Iowa’s 99 counties and its cities with the state. In the beginning of this project we conducted a workshop with representatives from cities, counties, the state administration and some legislators. We asked each group about their perception of the other groups. The local governments heard that the state thought they were inefficient. The state heard that local governments thought they didn’t have a clue about the challenges faced at the local level and the impact of state mandates.
This is not a new problem.
As people who have been married for a long time know, issues in relationships are the product of many years of good and bad experiences. Cities, counties and states have been married for over 200 years — a lot of time for patterns to emerge, patterns that do not work well in the 21st century.
Of course, in times of economic crisis, this relationship worsens. States are forced to slash budgets, often at the expense of local governments. Localities, for their part, are forced to turn to alternative means of methods of funding – like raising property taxes – that are highly unpopular with constituents. As a result, state and local governments, instead of cooperating, often blame and point fingers at each other.
In terms of sheer power – to allocate resources, control local decision-making, and cut or raise taxes – the relationship between state and local governments is, without dispute, unequal. States have ultimate control over localities, while local governments are forced to comply (or develop creative ways of not complying) with whatever decisions the state makes. This is true even in home rule states; local governments may have large degrees of control, but that control is ultimately granted – and can be taken away – by the state.
We are, of course, currently experiencing such an economic crisis, and it is not likely to go away anytime soon. Across the country, states and localities are enveloped in the worst fiscal crises in recent memory, and as the situation continues to worsen, the state/local relationship has reached a breaking point.
I believe the tension between state and local governments and their perceptions of each other are not much different from state to state. However, some states have better relationships with their local governments than others.
I am aware of a few attempts to improve the situation. Several years ago in Oregon, the state human services department joined representatives from a county to jointly present their budget to the legislature. This had a dramatic effect on the perception of legislators, to the degree that they could more clearly see the budget needs of counties and no longer cling to the perception that county services are optional.
There have also been bills in Oregon to professionalize the relationship between state and local government. These bills allow counties to opt out, have liability protection, and the ability to reduce services when funding is cut. Oregon has also created Community Solutions Teams to better address the problems on the local level and created a Performance and Accountability summit designed to align performance measures.
In California, the League of California Cities doubled their membership dues to bolster their lobbying power at the state. Their goal is to build alliances with business communities and others, help cities exert pressure on state, and develop contact with the media. The league has been relatively successful; at least the situation is much better than before.
What ideas do you have for improving the relationship between state and local government?