State of the State: Subsidiarity and California Government

Although it may sound Latin to some, the Governor’s new favorite term, “Subsidiarity,” is a word that resonates in the hopes and fears of California local governments. When applied through a sweeping vision of California governance laid out in last week’s State of the State, “Subsidiarity” could more familiarly be replaced with “local control.”

“Subsidiarity is the idea that a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed at a more immediate or local level,” said Governor Jerry Brown in his 11th State of the State. “In other words, higher or more remote levels of government, like the state, should render assistance… but always respect their primary jurisdiction.”

The Governor’s call for Subsidiarity in State governance is a warning away from the growing trend of micromanagement – the politically correct term for meddling in local government affairs.

Such a warning reverberates with local government officials who have seen their coffers raided, new restrictions placed on local government operations, and new punitive measures enacted by a Central, State governing body beholden to its own agendas and powerful special interests.

Admittedly, the Governor highlighted his state-level subscription to Subsidiarity in regards to schools and education. But recent actions – including veto messages – may demonstrate a wider application of the governing tenet.

Take, for instance, Realignment. The massive shift of responsibilities from the state to local level officials served several purposes, but paramount to its long-term success is the ability of local governments to operate efficiently and effectively. The state sought to save money by allowing local governments to govern. While funding, funding distribution, and the wisdom behind Realignment’s implementation remain questionable, there can be no denying that Realignment was a real-world application of local government Subsidiarity.

The Governor further demonstrates his broad application of Subsidiarity can be found in the most recent budget, where the Governor calls for maximizing local flexibility by allowing local decision makers to “…determine whether activities are implemented within their communities.”

Federal Healthcare Reform could also be delegated to local governments, as the Governor has called for building the “…right relationship with counties.”

As the Governor works to bring the Legislature on board with his principles of Subsidiarity, local government officials and associations, as well as PublicCEO, are likely going to closely monitor developments. If the Governor convinces the Legislature to join him, it could re-shape Jerry Brown’s legacy.  If the Assembly and Senate refuse to adhere to his principles, it could create a dangerous tête-à-tête.
Already, bills have been introduced that would prescribe state-level “fixes” to sidewalk responsibility, parking, zoning, and other local affairs.

In a few months, as more bills make their way onto the calendar and to the Governor, it will become clear how far Subsidiarity will go. Should Governor Brown be forced to veto popular legislation, will he? Will the Legislature exercise self-restraint? Will 2013 be an opportunity to re-define the state/local relationship?

These are questions that beg to be answered: hopefully the answer won’t come through more bills that “[expands] the coercive power of government by adding… to our already detailed and turgid legal system overshadows other aspects of public service.”

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