Gov. Gregoire's bombshell announcements last week, concerning education (consolidate all those state boards and departments) and ferries (create a local taxing district to supplement state funds), are part of a national trend to push state services and control down to local levels. This goes by the name "realignment" and recalls old battles about "federalism," meaning pushing federal dollars and programs back to state and local levels, with fewer strings attached.
We might start getting used to the idea, and looking for the good aspects of it. The basic proposal goes this way. The state can't afford to fund certain services, such as the University of Washington, as before. Moreover, partisan bickering in the Legislature and Tim Eyman initiatives have hamstrung the state. So the state will give the UW (or analogous entites like ferries) much greater autonomy and taxing (or tuition-setting) authority. The last part of the bargain is that the local entity needs to be a coherent regional body with a broad enough tax base to work.
This is basically what the new British Prime Minister David Cameron has been proposing, mixing in some proposals to shift the burden slightly toward the affluent. It isn't just austerity; it's about local groups taking up the burden, doing things in more tailored ways, and getting out from under national bureaucracies. There's a good summary of this "Big Society" idea in an essay in the Financial Times, headlined, "Britain's big gamble puts the citizens at the wheel."
In Britain, the rubber is really hitting the road in this experiment in a revived localism. For instance, how well are libraries coping with the formula of diminished budgets and lots more volunteers? An article in the Guardian found lots of bumps in this road:
"The threat to hundreds of libraries is being recast as an opportunity to bring in volunteers, and finally provide concrete examples of how the 'big society' may work in practice – and, though any library is better than none at all, you have to wonder about what will transpire. How volunteers will convincingly step into the space left by trained librarians, or maintain six-day-a-week opening, remains unclear (witness a recent headline from the Swindon Advertiser: 'Library hours cut due to lack of volunteers'). Moreover, when you spend time in a facility as ambitious as the one in Eastfield, one thought becomes inescapable: there is simply no way that unpaid staff could run it satisfactorily."
Closer to home, you might enjoy reading an essay by Seattle business leader Nick Hanauer and Seattle author Eric Liu in Democracy Journal. They propose disaggregating the "mushy amalgam" of federal and local programs. They would strengthen the federal level by having it set bolder goals and investing to achieve them. At the local level, there would be less government, more flexibility, more toolkits:
"Our bumper sticker is that government should do more what, less how: a stronger hand in setting great national goals and purposes; a lighter touch in how we reach those goals. Government should be less a service provider and more a tool creator; less wielder of stick than of carrot; less the parent than the coach; less the vending machine than the toolkit for civic action. A more what/less how government should set the bar high and invest fully in a great springboard — then let people, through dedication and practice, compete to get over the bar."
I read the Hanauer/Liu proposal as a kind of venture-capital version of government. The venture capitalist puts up the money for game-changing companies, sits on the board, closely monitors the results, bails early on failures, and makes sure there is an excellent CEO and team running the venture. A good example is the Race to the Top approach of Education Secretary Arne Duncan: clear goals, real money, and real local competition with lots of room for variety.
Another attraction of this approach is that it transcends the partisan divides and doesn't represent a clear win for conservatives or liberals. It has conservative elements, notably the Tory-Burkean valuation of creative, distinctive localism. It has liberal elements in its call to set more ambitious national goals, to revitalize self-government, and to pull cities away from dependency on rural-dominated legislatures.
Put another way, these proposals disturb the status quo and get both sides angry. On the governor's ferry-district proposal, for instance, many were quick to declare it D.O.A. The Seattle Times editorial page has already pounced, saying that the ferry system needs to remain a part of a state responsibility, or just raise fares more and tighten the belts. Local legislators, who would have to break the bad tax news to their constituents (rather than just keep blaming Eyman for their long commuter lines), are also opposed. Unfortunately for the governor's politics, there are so many Puget Sound counties affected that they constitute a majority in the Legislature.
A thoughtful article on California Gov. Jerry Brown's proposals for "realignment" makes further objections to this approach. If the state is broke, the localities are in even worse shape:
"Facing a monstrous deficit, the state has every incentive to dump new burdens onto local governments while shorting our ability to pay for them. Plainly put, if the state can't provide these services without running up $28 billion in red ink, what makes anyone think local governments will be able to without running up huge deficits as well? Indeed, any realignment plan must protect local government against becoming a net revenue loser. Otherwise, it runs the risk of breaking the financial backs of already strapped counties and cities."
To this line of opposition, I would make two counter-arguments. One is that bucking things down to the local level means less expensive universalizing of the benefits. To get things like a state convention center for Seattle past the Legislature meant giving every county in the state the taxing authority to do the same. The result is a vast array of small such centers, far more than needed. The other point is that once things are more localized, the taxpayers tend to have more trust and the issues seem less partisan.
A final point in favor of this divestment strategy is that pushing important functions down to the regional level can be a spur to the creation of strong regional entities. This boost for metro regions is the key component of the Brookings Institution's recipe for urban revitalization. In that spirit, let us imagine that the governor's ferry proposal gets combined with plans to save Puget Sound (which also needs a local taxing district) and maybe even Sound Transit.
You can fondly imagine that the state legislature will some day find the political will and the money to do this in a worthy way. Enjoy your delusions! Or you can conclude, as I do, that it will have to be a regional, sub-state-level approach.