League of Women Voters Event Highlights the Importance of State and Local Government
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- April 1, 2021
- Undergraduate Students
By Dr. Lisa K. Parshall, professor of political science at Daemen College and public policy fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government.
A recent panel sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara (LWVBN) highlighted the importance of state and local government and the fiscal challenges they face. As a member of the LWVBN’s local government committee, I and my fellow committee members helped to organize the event, titled, Scaling the Fiscal Cliff: The Post-Pandemic Challenges for Local Governments.
This is a critical time to be studying state and local budgeting and we wanted to bring public awareness to the issue of local finances. Many local governments, especially cities, were already struggling with long term fiscal stress.
As the result of the pandemic, revenues dropped sharply even as service demands went way up. In New York, we were looking at a $15 billion budget gap over the next two years, and many local governments were standing at the edge of a fiscal cliff. Without the ability to increase revenues, they were contemplating deep service cuts and employee layoffs. The new stimulus bill, known as the American Recovery Plan, includes substantial aid to states and localities and will keep local government from going over that cliff, but will not resolve the long-term fiscal challenges or blunt the impact of state-level policies which have put downward pressure on local government, including stagnant and reduced state aid and e property tax cap.
The panel featured leading experts on fiscal challenges of municipal government. Dr. Mildred Warner, a professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, is an international expert on municipal responses to fiscal stress. She likened the pressures faced by local governments as being caught in a tightening vice of environmental pressures and state-level policies. Rather than resorting to austerity measures, her research finds that local governments engage in pragmatic municipalism – a balanced approach aimed at protecting services.
Dr. Gregory Rabb offered his own perspective as a “pracademic” – an academic with real world practical experience. Rabb was a member of the Jamestown City Council and is chairman of the Jamestown Board of Public Utilities. Rabb spoke, passionately at times, of the problems confronting small and mid-sized cities, and the City of Jamestown, in particular.
Warner had raised the analogy of death by a thousand cuts to describe local government realities; Rabb fleshed out for the audience some of the biggest challenges faced by cities, including the high rates of property tax exemptions, union contract obligations, inter-municipal taxation, and state level policies, including outmoded formulas for calculating state aid.
Perspectives on the fiscal picture for Western New York’s two biggest municipal units – Erie County and the City of Buffalo – was provided by investigative journalist Geoff Kelly who writes for the weekly Investigative Post. Kelly explained the pre-pandemic status in which Buffalo had survived a fiscal crisis and emerged from under the oversight of a hard fiscal control board and had built up reserves before spending them down again to a new point of crisis. He compared the latest round of federal stimulus targeting state and local governments as a “lifeline” for the City of Buffalo. But, as Kelly explained, the money does come with conditions and limitations; what those limitations are and what the money can be used for will depend on additional federal clarification.
As moderator, I was able to bring some of my own expertise, focusing on municipal reorganization and village government, into the discussion. Consensus across all the presenters was that state-level policies are, for better and for worse, shaping the fiscal realities of municipalities, and is not always a reliable partner in their ability to manage the stress.
Rosary Hill alumna Kathleen McCarthy (Class of ’60 and 2007 Daemen College Distinguished Alumna), who also sits on the LWVBN local government committee, had this to say about the event: “Having the same conclusions from an academic researcher, a local-government practitioner, and a journalist was an important take-away from the presentation. This is information that needs to be out there for citizens who are making choices in the 2021 and 2022 elections. This is a challenge for the league to educate the citizens. Our committee’s work has just begun.”
McCarthy, whose career was in human resource management and administration, worked for the national office of the U.S. Department of Labor until 1995, returning to Western New York in 2004. In addition to her work with the Daemen Alumni Association, she has been active in the LWVBN, serving on its local government committee since 2012 and coordinating the Election Services Committee’s work with the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.
One of the challenges, the panelists agreed, was raising greater public awareness as to the function and plight of local government, particularly in times of economic downturns or in the event of a major public health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The keys would seem to lie with continued academic research, local media reporting, and voter education – which is where the LWV plays a major role.
Not all universities or colleges offer courses on state and local politics as part of their curriculum. Daemen College does. The course, State and Local Politics (PSC 114), is offered as part of the political science major and public administration minor housed in the Department of History and Political Science. Daemen also offers a Plus Pathway in Community Development, a cluster of classes for students who have an interest in community development and leadership. Several of the recent graduates of the history and political science program have taken positions working for government, or as community organization leaders.
Why Should We Care about Local Government?
It can be a challenge to get people interested in local government, much less local government financing, but it is something that should matter to everyone. Here are a few reasons why:
- First, state and local governments are our direct service providers. From police and emergency services to education and roadways, from sewer and sanitation to voting, we depend daily on state and local government. The decision making and fiscal capacity of municipal government directly affects our quality of life.
- State and local governments employment accounts for about 13 percent of the total national workforce. A retirement boom is also likely to open more state and local jobs in the near future. A full economic recovery must include a recovery of the state and local sectors.
- State and local governments also serve as the implementers of many federal programs and policies. Consider the pandemic-response, whether that is enforcing public health measures or distribution of vaccines, local governments are the units of government that are closest to the people, they are the governments with which we have the most direct points of contact.
- State and local policy is (relatively speaking) much easier to influence. While turnout in state and local politics is dismal, your vote and voice can have a direct impact on the local level. It is easy to go to a local government meeting, whether in person or by Zoom. State and local officials are just more accessible than federal policy makers.
The panel’s focus on fiscal realities comes at a critical time, just as New York is entering into the homestretch of finalizing the state budget – a negotiating phase between the governor and state legislature in the finalization of the state’s spending plans that has been made even more complex by a pending impeachment inquiry that is sure to impact the power of the governor in the budgeting process. It is a particularly fascinating time to be studying state and local politics and intergovernmental relations.