Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Local Government Autonomy and State Reliance on Special District Governments: A Reassessment

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Local Government Autonomy and State Reliance on Special District Governments: A Reassessment

Article excerpt

The notion that local government autonomy has important implications for a state's local government structure is fast approaching conventional wisdom. Negative binomial regression is used to analyze the link between the administrative, fiscal, functional, and structural autonomy permitted to municipal and county governments and the number of special districts in each state over the 1992-2002 period. This pooled analysis reveals that this relationship to befar more limited than previously thought. This study challenges the findings of previous studies showing that limitations on local autonomy strongly encourage a splintering of local government authority due to the creation of numerous special districts. Tax and expenditure limitations (TELs) were the only restrictions that were consistently related to a greater reliance on special district governments, and only when both municipal and county governments were both strongly restricted. For the most part, state reliance on special district governments was unaffected by the extent of restrictions placed on local general-purpose governments with regard to debt and permitted functions.

More than a decade ago Nancy Burns (1994) proposed the political-economic framework that has become the dominant explanation for understanding the formation of local governments. The logic underlying her framework is that people form new governments in order to gain access to the powers attached to these units and that the choice between a municipal and special district government hinges on whether or not its proponents seek zoning powers. The power to exclude people or activities from the jurisdiction through zoning policies is virtually the only power remaining exclusive to general-purpose local governments and Burns concluded that when this power was desired, forming a municipal government was the logical choice. This rationale is compelling for explaining why proponents of a new government would choose to form a municipal government instead of a special district when exclusion powers are sought, but it is less useful for explaining the more general case where the powers sought are available from both forms. For instance, what is the logic underlying this choice in the most general case, when the objective is to gain access to public services?

This work is largely directed at this latter question. Where local actors seek to gain or enhance service delivery, how this is achieved depends on the extent to which state legislatures empower (or restrict) the ability of existing general-purpose governments to meet these demands. Special districts, along with counties and municipal governments (which may include villages, towns, several states, and townships), operate as a system of local government. Historically, these different types of government functioned as complementary elements within this system. However, over time state legislatures have created an environment in which local governments are empowered to act as service delivery competitors, where demands for expanded services may be met by county, municipal, township, and special district governments (Carr 2004; Stephens and Wikstrom 1998). Given this, restrictions on any one type of local government likely affect its attractiveness relative to available substitutes for these services and, consequently, the general-specialpurpose government choice.1 Local government scholars have long suspected that home rule provisions have impacts far beyond their basic role of defining the powers permitted to particular types of local government (Bollens 1986; Feiock and Carr 2001; Miller 1981), and the notion that these provisions may have important implications for a states local government structure is fast approaching conventional wisdom (Lewis 2000). This outcome has been termed the "unintended consequences" of restricting local government autonomy (Bowler and Donovan, 2004).

If state restrictions on local government autonomy do have important implications for local government structure, then two other questions directly follow. …

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