Atlantic Cities

Are Cities Losing Power to States?

Are Cities Losing Power to States?
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The perpetual battle between state and city authorities seems to have intensified in the past few years. North Carolina voted to reduce its budget deficit with a share of the state's corporate income tax, rather than send the funds to local governments for school costs as it had in the past. Arizona lawmakers prohibited cities from restricting the location of religious facilities on the basis of zoning codes. Indiana eliminated a major city revenue source recently by capping property taxes.

The subservience has extended to even the most powerful American cities. The 2008 book City Bound: How States Stifle Urban Innovation opens by recounting New York City's failed plan for congestion pricing on Manhattan. Though Mayor Bloomberg supported the initiative, state traffic laws prohibited local authorities from requiring a fee for public highway use, and the courts reserved the ultimate power over city streets for the state. When Bloomberg requested special permission to implement the charge, Albany turned him down.

What U.S. cities should be wondering is whether these instances reflect a few high-profile cases or a systemic shift away from local governance. To find out, government scholars Ann Bowman of Texas A&M and Richard Kearney of North Carolina State recently posed this question to a number a local and state authorities. In an upcoming issue of Urban Affairs Review, they report that cities indeed have experienced a general "erosion of authority at the hands of their state governments" over the past decade, though only a modest one.

"I think the thing a lot of folks forget is just how important state governments are in either empowering or restricting their local government," says Bowman. "They basically call the shots."

The balance of state and local power varies across the country, and also ebbs and flows over time. Some states have adopted Dillon's Rule — named for a ruling by Iowa Judge John F. Dillon back in 1868 — which more or less says that local governments can only exercise powers explicitly granted by the state. Others have adopted some form of "home rule," which returns a good deal of authority back to the localities. A number of states have even adopted both rules, which makes the situation murkier still.

To determine the current climate of authority, Bowman and Kearney approached four groups of public officials close to the question: state legislators (21 in all), city managers (234), executive directors of state municipal leagues (21), and executive directors of county associations (17). (The latter two groups lobby the legislature on local matters, but have a broader perspective on the situation than lawmakers or city officials.) In early 2010, the researchers surveyed these groups on several aspects of state and local authority since 2000.

The first question focused on "devolution," or how much responsibility had shifted from the state to the local level. The responses across five domains — personnel, finance, service provision, administrative authority, and home rule — failed to suggest even a moderate level of devolution during the past decade. The dispersion among all four groups was low, suggesting a relative consensus that power had failed to transfer downward.

Bowman and Kearney also asked whether authority had increased or decreased with regard to specific policy areas, and whether state mandates during this time had a positive or negative impact on cities. While state legislators felt that authority had stayed about the same and that state mandates had a positive impact on cities, city managers saw things quite differently. They believed local authority had declined in general and that mandates related to financial administrations, education, and land use in particular stifled city governments.

Executive directors of county associations seemed to side with the city managers. In fact county executives reported even greater negative effects of mandates in the policy areas of health and public welfare than managers did. Municipal league directors also believed local authorities had lost power in the past decade, though not to the extent that city managers and county directors did.

At times state and local groups took completely contradictory views of the power struggle. In the policy area of land use, for instance, the local groups believed their authority has diminished over the past decade, while state legislators believed it has grown. There was only one policy area in which all four groups agreed that the balance of state-local power hadn't changed since 2000: the rather innocuous parks and recreation.

In short, several local actors, particularly city managers, believe local authorities have lost a modest share power in the past ten years, and that state mandates have inhibited local policy efforts to some degree. State legislators, meanwhile, tend to believe the power distribution hasn't changed too much. Bowman wasn't too surprised at the results — she'd found a similar trend in work published last year — and if anything she expected state and local positions to be more polarized.

"I expected [from local authorities]: Yes these mandates have been issued and they're draconian and awful," she said. "Instead they said: Yes we've had mandates, but they've had a modest effect."

One major hindrance to devolution seems to be that state authorities simply don't trust local ones. In the survey, 38 percent of state legislators identified "lack of trust in local officials" as a major reason why more power hadn't shifted. One legislator wrote in a comments box: "We need to decentralize power and encourage local democracy. The question is how." Bowman attributes much of this perception to a few irresponsible cities like Bell, California, where local officials were recently involved in a corruption scandal.

However the situation may be turning — perhaps in response to persistent lobbying by local authorities at the state level. Bowman says she's about to present the results of a new study that focused on state legislative sessions across the country in 2011. The research looked at whether new laws either empowered or weakened local government, and the early results indicate a clear change from the last decade.

"It's just one slice in time," Bowman says. "But we did find a slight trend in 2011 toward empowering local government — freeing them up to make those decisions."

Photo credit: Craig Barhorst /Shutterstock

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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