State legislators have never thought voters were smart enough to decide how to run their own local governments. For decades, senators ran the counties. They eventually allowed county councils to do this, with significant restrictions. Ditto cities.
Even today, legislators are constantly threatening (and too often following through) to strip city and county councils of the power state law gives them to make decisions about what happens in the communities they were elected to run. Look no further than this year’s proposed ban on plastic bag bans. Or the proposed ban on local bans on selling tobacco products that are targeted at minors.
But legislators’ incessant efforts to treat duly elected governments like unruly children don’t stop at the governmental equivalent of taking away their driving privileges. They also send them to bed without any dinner. Night after night after night.
For decades, local governments had to send money from several of their local taxes to Columbia, where the Legislature skimmed money off the top. In 1991, the Legislature passed a law that sent the money from seven of those local taxes directly to the state, in return for creating the local government fund, which promised cities and counties the equivalent of 4.5 percent of the previous year’s state budget. Local officials agreed, hoping they’d stop getting cheated. A quaint idea.
In 2010, in the middle of a recession, the Legislature cut that local government fund, even though state law said it couldn’t be cut. Then it was cut some more, and then more, and then more. Finally, in 2013 the Legislature stopped cutting the fund, but it never made up the difference, and never went back to increasing funding every year, as the law required. (Lawmakers just suspend that law every year to make it legal to ignore it.) This year, cities and counties are receiving $223 million, which is just 65 percent of the $341 million state law requires.
The good news is that cities and counties are on track to receive an additional $11 million next year, which would give them $234 million, or 64 percent of the money state law requires. The bad news is that this is because they finally accepted the ugly reality — that the Legislature holds them in utter contempt and has no intention of keeping its promises — and agreed to a plan to change the law and lock in the underfunding.
H.3137 sets this year’s underfunding as the new baseline, and promises to increase that amount each year by the same proportion that the state budget grows, up to 5 percent.
We’re not sure what makes cities and counties believe they can trust the Legislature to keep its word this time, although we do understand why they’d be willing to take what they could get. It’s not like the Legislature was feeling any political heat to follow the law.
It’s bad enough to cheat cities and counties out of the money they need to run their governments, while systematically stripping them of the authority to decide how to do that. But this “solution” raises the frightening specter of lawmakers trying to pull a similar trick with the other big mandatory funding requirement they have consistently ignored: public education. If that happens, it will be because all of us allowed it to.