Sunday, February 27, 2011
With the new "austerity" budgets as well as efforts to ban collective bargaining by government employees, local governments are considering their options. In Ohio, The Local Government Fund Coalition launched this week. The state legislatures of Wyoming, Nevada, South Dakota, and Minnesota are among those that are reportedly considering the issue.
In West Virginia, a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to address the ability of a local governments to raise funds was introduced during the Regular Session of the West Virginia State Legislature this term. Born of an idea researched and advanced by Matthew Delligatti, the former mayor of Fairmont, West Virginia, and current third-year law student at WVU College of Law, House Joint Resolution 9 attempts to present the voters with a constitutional amendment designated “The Silenced Majority Local Levy and Bond Amendment.”
The resolution aims to amend the provisions of Article X of the West Virginia Constitution, which requires a 60% supermajority voter approval for the passage of municipal and county levies and bonds. In 1982, voters amended this restriction by ratifying an amendment requiring only a simple majority for school levies and bonds. However, the 60% threshold remains for all other local levies and bonds and continues to plague municipal and county leaders’ plans to raise revenue, including for recreational levies. While the Resolution has not yet been approved by both houses of the state legislature, many observers expect the measure to pass and be sent on to the voters for ratification. In fact, the State Senate unanimously passed the Resolution on Friday.
As the "Silenced Majority Amendment" makes clear, local government reform must conform to restrictions in state constitutions. Professor Robert Bastress at the WVU College of Law, is not only knowledgeable on the constitutionality of West Virginia statehood and the constitutionality of West Virginia's "Acting Governor" controversies, but also the challenge of local government reform under West Virginia's state constitution. In “Constitutional Considerations for Local Government Reform in West Virginia,” 108 W. Va. L. Rev. 125 (2005), Bastress surveys the history of local government reform and constitutional revision in West Virginia and offers considerations for legislators concerned with the constitutionality of statutory reforms of local government. In a follow-up article, Bastress addressed the principles underlying the need for vibrant, autonomous local government in “Localism and the West Virginia Constitution,” 109 W. Va. L. Rev. 983 (2007). In both pieces, Bastress lays out a strong case for local government reform.
He writes in Constitutional Considerations: “Moving toward consolidated governments and cooperative arrangements provides great opportunities to share resources, achieve efficiencies, and promote equity. Any such effort, however, should include mechanisms to preserve the advantages of small government: local self-determination, diversity, governmental responsiveness to constituent concerns, citizen participation, and sense of community.” Id. at 169. Bastress then argues in Localism that the West Virginia Constitution “provides considerably more local government discretion” than has been previously understood. Id. at 684. Ultimately, Bastress links localism to democracy:
By leaving important decisions to local governments, a state promotes self-determination, the rationale and foundation of democracy. The smaller the governmental unit, the more input and influence an individual citizen can have on her government. Then, too, the more discretion that local leaders have, the better they can address problems in a manner that is most suitable to the community’s particular needs. Local people know local conditions the best and can most effectively address them, if they have sufficient regulatory tools and the resources to do so. . . .
With enhanced local power also comes enhanced citizen participation in local government. Citizens participate in government when that participation can be meaningful. The smaller the governmental unit, the more likely a citizen’s participation will be meaningful. And the more autonomy that unit has, the more likely the participation will prove to be useful. Active citizen participation in government improves the public debate, promotes better decision-making, advances the lives of the participants, and makes for a better polity and a better democracy.
Id. at 687 - 688. Bastress' arguments extend well beyond West Virginia.
with J. Zak Ritchie
(image: Monongahela River at Fairmont, WV, by Tim Kiser via)