If you like your vegetables locally grown, you might take your government the same way and for many of the same reasons. It’s easier to have confidence in local government. You know the people involved, and you might even be able to observe it in the making.
Lately in Hartford, two things are certain. Lawmakers continually struggle to keep state finances in balance, and the same lawmakers preach to Connecticut’s municipalities about the money-saving magic of “regionalization.” You see, some in Hartford see local governments as obstinately inefficient, willfully neglecting opportunities to save taxpayer dollars out of small-minded parochialism.
The first constant in Hartford makes it difficult to stomach the second. It is crunch time for lawmakers trying to balance the budget. As of Sunday, the budget for this year, ending June 30, was still out of balance, as was the budget starting July 1. There are no budgets for the next two years, but we’re starting billions of dollars behind on those, too.
If lawmakers had a track record of prudence and fiscal responsibility, some of their points might be well-taken. Instead, the reason state officials obsess over local efficiency is that every dollar saved locally frees up another for them to spend guilt-free. The message to towns: Save money so the state can spend more.
Local leaders will be forgiven for ignoring this desperation.
There is a kernel of truth in the idea that Connecticut’s system of 169 towns has its disadvantages. Small towns don’t get economies of scale on some purchases. And there are redundancies. For example, having more than 100 school districts means we need to have more than 100 superintendents.
If every town in Litchfield County joined together to buy paper, would they save money? Probably. But in search of these savings, what might we lose? As the economist Thomas Sowell says, “There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs.”
Small-town government has its own appeal. While having so many superintendents is an added cost, having a small school district makes it is easier to reach your superintendent. You may even get to know your superintendent.
In a small town, it is easier to watch what your town is doing. While your town may spend more on some things, residents can have a higher level of confidence that they know where each dollar is going.
Most states have a county level of government sandwiched between the state and local levels. Years ago, the people of Connecticut and their representatives made a deliberate decision to abolish county government – for better or worse. Now the regionalism mantra emanating out of Hartford looks to unelected regional associations to step into the gap.
While some elected officials serve double duty by participating in these regionals councils, they are not democratically chosen to serve in that capacity. The regional post is simply an add-on to their elected capacity.
Of course, local governments should be prudent, and they should look to other towns for best practices. They should even look for opportunities to work together. Mutually beneficial cooperation should be celebrated, but state officials find these spontaneous arrangements less than satisfying because they can’t take credit.
State lawmakers want more than just voluntary cooperation. They want to provide incentives — state money — to encourage cooperation. If the cooperation is mutually beneficial, it will provide its own incentives. If state money is the only justification for the cooperation, then why bother encouraging it?
Perhaps municipalities would have more confidence in what Hartford was selling if Hartford listened to its own pitch. Connecticut state government replicates a number of federal regulatory agencies to no obvious benefit for its residents, but at added cost and red tape.
Many of the municipal redundancies derided in Hartford originate in Hartford. The process for qualifying to become a superintendent — not to mention a number of other local posts — is tightly controlled by the legislature. State rules prevent school districts with declining enrollment from realizing savings.
If lawmakers want their regionalism efforts to be taken seriously, they should lead by example. First, they need to manage their finances with some credibility. Second, they should remove some of the obstacles — which they freely choose to impose — that prevent towns from saving money. Finally, the state could eliminate some of its own redundant capacities.
Given how long that might take, the people of Connecticut can plan on enjoying the benefits of locally-grown government for the foreseeable future.
This column originally appeared in the Lakeville Journal.