The problem goes deeper than funding, to the core of governmental purpose.
Much of the problem lies in the master-servant relationship that has evolved as the State has taken effective control of one function after another in return for partial funding of locally administered programs. Over time, local policy and management discretion has disappeared. Local officials are turned into pawns rather than policy-makers. And citizens become increasingly frustrated with the inability of local elected and appointed officials to respond to community concerns, obsessed as local officials are with marching to the State government drum. Sadly, a similar boss-employee relationship has become the norm between the federal government and the States.
As a result, our hallowed “federal system” is in shambles.
Feds – here’s your list of responsibilities, courtesy of the United States Constitution. State and local governments: you are responsible for all governmental functions not assigned to the Feds or denied you by the Constitution. Decide who is responsible for what, and give that entity full power, authority and responsibility to fund and carry out that function.
No more intergovernmental transfers, grants, “partnerships” or other confusing intergovernmental finger pointing arrangements. We’ll all know where the buck came from, and where it stops. No more federal matching money with strings dangling before overreaching States, which, in turn, distort their own priorities and those of the local governments serving the people who paid taxes to all three levels of government to begin with.
To facilitate the above reforms, ironically we will have to rely on large-scale revenue transfers and revenue sharing for a short period (say eight years), until revenue raising and spending can be properly aligned with the new functional responsibilities at each level of government.
At the local level, large-scale consolidation, mergers and dissolution of scores of special districts will occur. Power and accompanying funding will return to general-purpose local governments, commensurate with their new responsibilities.
The long and short of this is a return to explicit responsibility. No more federal government regulating States, regulating local governments, regulating actual people and businesses. If the federal government wants to regulate wastewater quality, they can assume full responsibility for funding, constructing and operating treatment plants. If the State wants to micro-manage planning and zoning down to the individual parcel level, it must be willing to spend its own money to do so, including setting up the permitting and enforcement mechanism to implement its appetite for control.
No more pronouncements from up high; you want it done then you do it. The cries of “unfunded mandates” which have echoed through city halls and county courthouses for three decades have fallen on deaf ears. At this late date, local officials should be saying, “We don’t want funding for your mandates. That just pays us to do what you want us to do, not what we think needs doing. Keep your money and carry out your own mandates. If you don’t have the money to do it, join the club. We don’t either.”
At risk of disrespect, many of the solutions posed for consideration are red herrings, marginally useful in a narrow sense, but unlikely to set a tone for more substantial reforms. Among those are legislative re-apportionment, changes in term limits, liberalizing vote requirements for budget passage or tax increases or tinkering with Proposition 13.
Unfortunately, we are headed in the wrong direction with “cap and trade” and other regulatory monstrosities, destined to drive businesses and real people into the same poor house occupied by debt-ridden States and localities.