Helicopter States

Micro-Managing Local Governments While Neglecting Regional Issues

This newsletter resumes our series on reconstructing American government. Previously, we urged a revamped Federalism, a new public service model and state government reforms. This week, we introduce our ideas on state and local government relations. A more detailed commentary is on the way.

Big Story

Metro regions and their largest local governments could be the engines of America’s recovery, progress and prosperity, but not if their potential continues to be overlooked.

It has been over 50 years since the first American moon landing. Sadly, our nation can claim few other governmental achievements of that magnitude in the years since. There are many reasons for the inertia that plagues our country. Corrosive politics. Weak leadership. Onerous public debt. Ineffectual institutions. Disengaged corporations. Alienated citizens.

Such causes have been well-documented, but one surprisingly influential factor has received little notice—state mismanagement of local governments. States, by treating local governments as the serfs of American federalism, have prevented our country from fully unleashing local assets. By doing so, they have made it much more difficult for us to realize our promise as a nation.

Big Question

Why do state governments give so little thought to state and local relations? Why do they ignore the potential of our rising regions? Why do so many state officials restrain, rather than empower, their largest cities?

If it’s true that regions are the engines of the global economy, why does American federalism neglect them? If localism is such a promising path to innovation and competitiveness, why do states strive to emasculate large cities like Austin and Raleigh? Instead of developing strategies to promote regionalism and empower exceptional localities, why do so many states micro-manage local governments and impose ill-conceived, intrusive mandates? 

Big Idea

States should develop comprehensive strategies for unleashing the power of regions, restructuring local governments and decentralizing suitable state services.

The recommended strategies should address several related issues, including regionalism, localism, local government structure, powers and functions, state mandates and preemption legislation. The strategies should incorporate the best opportunities for delegating state services to regional or local authorities.  We will present our thoughts on these issues in more detail later this week, but, until then, you can learn more about reconstructing government at Civic Way.

Potential Models

  • Minneapolis/St. Paul – in 1971, the state legislature established Minneapolis-St. Paul’s regional tax sharing revenue mechanism requiring each municipality in the designated seven-county area to contribute 40 percent of its annual commercial-industrial tax revenue growth to a regional pool; this system has reduced tax and service disparities, fostered reinvestment in marginalized communities and reduced economic development competition among localities

  • Minneapolis/St. Paul – the Metropolitan Council of Minneapolis-St. Paul, its members appointed by the governor, serves as the metro area’s regional planning organization, administers an urban growth boundary and oversees regional sewer and water services 

  • Greater Chicago – the City of Chicago and surrounding seven counties formed a unified regional economic development agency, the Chicago Regional Growth Corporation (CRGC), to develop a single development agenda and improve regional collaboration across Northeastern Illinois

  • Metro Denver – Denver and its surrounding counties have two highly-regarded regional entities, the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation (Metro Denver EDC), a regional economic development organization for 70 cities, counties and economic development agencies in the metro area, and the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), a state-authorized, voter-approved entity for distributing sales tax funds to nearly 300 cultural organizations in the seven-county Denver metro region

  • Pittsburgh – the Allegheny Regional Asset District (RAD) distributes a portion of Allegheny County's incremental one percent sales and use tax to a variety of regional assets, including libraries, parks, trails, public transit, arts and cultural organizations and sports and civic facilities (invested over $2 billion during its 25-year history)

  • Portland – Portland Metro, the first elected regional government, was created in 1979 to serve 3 counties and 25 cities; it coordinates regional planning, administers an urban growth boundary, supervises 17,000 acres of parks, trails and natural areas, operates several cultural facilities (e.g., Zoo and Convention Center) and oversees the region's solid waste system

Other Views 

Civic Way System

The Civic Way system for improving state and local governance helps leaders see civic problems, fix those problems, own the solutions and track civic progress. Civic Way’s experienced advisors are available to help state and local leaders improve public institutions. Check out Civic Way’s sample tools

Email us at BMelville@CivicWay.Org to share your thoughts or suggestions about Civic Way or this newsletter.