Sunday, April 24, 2011

Reacting to the Governor’s Government Reform Proposals (Part 2)

Even though Michiganders had the opportunity to reverse the legacy of home rule by rewriting the Constitution last fall, the measure did not pass, and the job of mitigating these consequences have now fallen into the hands of Governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Legislature. On March 21st, 2011, the Governor outlined some of his proposals in a special message to the Michigan Legislature. The reforms outlined by the governor include:
  • Greater regional and public-private cooperation in economic and community development.
  • Incentivizing local government transparency, performance measurement, and intergovernmental cooperation through State revenue sharing mechanisms.
  • Local government coordination and cooperation through existing Michigan statutes like the Urban Cooperation Act, the Intergovernmental Transfer of Functions and Responsibilities Act, the Metropolitan Councils Act and the Emergency Services to Municipalities Act.
  • Government consolidation through legislation that leads to the formation of Metropolitan government.
  • Provisions that will eliminate barriers in renegotiating collective bargaining agreements with government workers, and eliminating minimum staffing requirements.
In this author’s opinion, all of these measures make sense given the severity of the financial situation that our region faces. Our state must reform itself or we will all suffer. Greater public-private cooperation is absolutely necessary and should be institutionalized further through incentives to private companies that deliver public services in an open and transparent manner.

The Governor’s reform proposals may mitigate many of the effects of home rule outlined above, however it’s not clear that these reforms will completely eliminate the ongoing negative effects of home rule. While it may be difficult to think of empowering our state to force government consolidation upon our local units, particularly in light of our state government’s in ability to address its own financial issues, this may be necessary if several local governments fall into financial receivership. Our state may event want to take away the power for local governments to form on their own without approval by the Michigan Legislature or the Governor.

And while it may frighten some to think about creating a Metropolitan government that supercedes or replaces our county or local units, this may be the only way we are able to deliver services efficiently and compete as a region with other regions. At the very least, it will force our region’s elected leaders to think regionally instead of looking at their neighboring governments as competitors for jobs and residents. The cities of Louisville, Indianapolis, and Denver have shown that it can be done, and while it may take a lot of time and exploration, we cannot simply reject the idea as politically unfeasible. We already act regionally in how we commute to jobs and access shopping and entertainment, so why not explore ways to truly institutionalize our regionalism? No matter what, we owe it to the future residents of this state to explore this idea.

Regional, not Local, Self-Determination

Governor Snyder was smart to incentivize intergovernmental cooperation with the promise of enhanced revenue sharing from the State of Michigan, but he should consider taking these incentives a step further. For example, the city-county of Denver and its neighboring counties are raising a .4 cent sales tax (that’s 5 cents for every $10 dollars spent) to build a mass transit system that will serve as a regional asset for decades to come. The sales tax was approved through a referendum and will only remain as long as it takes to complete and sustain the project.

What if, in return for meaningful reform and government consolidation in Michigan, our state would allow two counties to partner to raise a tax to build a shared asset? (For those of you who fear more taxes, just ask yourselves if the City of Chicago’s huge sales tax is discouraging people from shopping on Michigan Avenue, or if it is discouraging young people from flocking there after college).

As individual consumers, we already spend money on a regional level when we go to a sporting event, concert, or go shopping or to dinner. Why not have some of the tax revenue that is already levied on us stay here in this region instead of going up to Lansing? Why should our region (or the Grand Rapids or Ann Arbor regions for that matter) be dependent on the state to finance the assets we need to compete on a national and global level?

The ability to raise a tax other than property taxes on a regional level is the incentive or “carrot” missing from the Governor’s plan. It is the incentive needed to encourage governments to go beyond identifying ways to manage their current assets, by having them focus on building shared assets.

Showing the way

The Governor’s initial government reform proposal is above and beyond anything his predecessors have done so far. He cites several examples of where intergovernmental cooperation has worked, and local governments need to learn from those cases in evaluating their own plan of action. Still, the governor has a long way to go in getting more specific about what locally provided services can and should be consolidated, and what services are better managed the way they are. He must also answer the following:
  • What becomes the role of local councils and mayors if certain services are to be delivered through a merged government structure or metropolitan authority?
  • How will these reforms lead to better land use and transportation decisions?
  • Following the “open source” model promoted so heavily by Mike Finney while at Ann Arbor Spark, how can local governments easily plug into performance measurement, transparency, and learn from best practices of other governments?
  • What kind of grassroots support will the Governor provide to communities who want to explore service sharing and/or merging / consolidation? Will the Governor’s Office publish a guide for local governments to follow when exploring and evaluating the feasibility of consolidation?
  • What is the role of the Michigan Municipal League, Citizens Research Council of Michigan, Center for Michigan, and Michigan Association of Counties in this process?
The Governor’s task isn’t too dissimilar to Mayor Dave Bing’s task of developing a comprehensive plan for Detroit through the Detroit Works Project. Snyder must engage communities at the grassroots level in order to gain the trust of the citizens and their elected officials. Without such engagement and without providing answers to the pressing questions above, he will continue to receive reactions like those from Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano who called the suggestion of metropolitan government “unreasonable” (Detroit News, March 28th, 2011).

At the same time, Snyder needs champions at the local and county level who will be bold and act with a sense of urgency. Instead of discounting the political feasibility of government transformation, locally elected leaders need to take the issue seriously and reach out to their neighboring communities. Our region has waited too long to come together while other regions move forward. A legacy of inaction is an opportunity for bold leadership, and our elected leaders owe it to our citizens to put past political differences and failures behind them for the sake of the future of our region and state.

Ending on a personal note…

I turned 31 years old the other day. I chose to stay here in Michigan after graduate school to make a difference in the public arena, and I hope that during my career transition, I have left something of value in that arena. I still feel a sense of obligation to do more than just write about policy, and I hope that I will someday make an impact in the policy arena again. In the meantime, this blog will be my periodic outlet for staying in the game.

A few months ago, I saw a friend who has moved to California but whose heart remains here. Like many of my friends who have moved away, I asked him when he’s coming back. The usual response is “when Michigan gets it [bleep] together.”

Well, here’s a chance. Let’s not waste it.

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