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May 4, 2014

MICHAEL HICKS: The tale of three states

Balance of state, local gov't results in different outcomes

Having lived and worked in three different states over the past decade, I have had occasion to watch the way local government operates. In particular, I am interested in how state policy influences the goodness or badness of local government. I start in West Virginia, where I lived a decade ago.

The Mountain State decided in the 1930s to make most budget decisions at the state level. All but a tiny share of property taxes are collected by the legislature and distributed back to local governments using an opaque formula. The legislature, in its munificence, holds about a quarter of total tax revenue in a single large fund it carefully doles out in special earmarks. Successful county or municipal elected officials in West Virginia spend no time at all on such mundane matters as improving schools or paving roads. Instead, they lobby the legislature for earmarks.

The results of this practice are a catastrophic deficit of local amenities, ubiquitously bad schools and a lagging economy. Local leadership is all about securing earmarks, not good governance. Tellingly, it is this political environment on which the young Robert C. Byrd learned his craft. In 2004, I left for Ohio.

In contrast, the Buckeyes have a much more decentralized local government. Mayors, county and township officials, school boards and special taxing authorities make their case for higher taxes directly to voters. Rates are set by referendum, and local governments collect and spend taxes. Here they can observe firsthand the ill effects of raising taxes and the beneficial effects of good public services. Most local leaders seek a comfortable balance. Not surprisingly, in this environment local elected leaders tend to all know how to read a balance sheet and how to think about investing public funds.

Ohio is not a utopia, but in the three years I lived in one of the most conservative congressional districts in the Midwest, my township twice voted overwhelmingly to raise our taxes to build new schools and to install AstroTurf on a high school football field. To Hoosier ears that sounds implausible, but the local school board provided voters a break-even analysis on the investments. Then I moved to Indiana.

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