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Tallahassee Democrat: Lester Abberger and Carol Weissert: State Legislature should recognize local authority

Sunday, June 30, 2013

As the dust settles from the 2013 session of the Florida Legislature, we want to call attention to a troubling trend from this session and several that preceded it: the Legislature’s increasingly frequent willingness to override, ignore, or preempt local government authority.

During this session, the Legislature enacted measures raising mandatory county pension contributions, prohibiting local governments from requiring employers to provide sick leave, and preempting local transportation planning and environmental regulation. Moreover, and equally as troubling, the problem is not confined to the Legislature. An appeals court earlier this month found that Florida Department of Juvenile Justice had improperly shifted juvenile detention costs to local governments.

These actions follow previous state preemption’s prohibiting local governments from enacting laws on subjects ranging from banning guns in parks and government buildings, to smoking in parks, at beaches or in bars, to outlawing retail plastic bags. The state mandates a number of provisions in the area of pensions, compensation and presumption of disability of local firefighters and police.

The ostensible logic undergirding such preemptions pales in contrast to what we see as a much more fundamental concern about local autonomy. The rationale for giving local governments the authority to make decisions responsive to the needs of their constituents is clear: they reflect local conditions and values. They meet the needs of their citizens for services that may differ from the needs of citizens in other jurisdictions. They can provide efficient levels of public spending by encouraging greater local recognition of the cost of public programs. Giving local governments the ability to exercise policy functions also increases innovation, experimentation, and local competition in the design and delivery of services.

The past few years have posed enormous challenges for local governments as they have struggled to maintain essential services in a declining revenue environment without increasing taxes. Unfunded state mandates push the responsibility of funding programs to local governments, which can be ill equipped to take them on without raising property taxes.

Ironically, the Legislature seems to be impeding the ability of local governments to respond to local priorities, concerns, and values at the very time it is chafing under similar “heavy-handed” actions emanating from the federal government. One need look no further than the arguments opposing Medicaid expansion in Florida to get a palpable sense of this strongly-felt concern. Some of the same legislators who rail about the importance of local decision making when it applies to the states are those who also cavalierly ignore the same concerns when they apply inconveniently to jurisdictions further down the governmental food chain.

The LeRoy Collins Institute, a public policy research entity charged with studying issues important to Florida, has been examining state-local relationships in Florida, with funding from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, for several years. We have analyzed state involvement in municipal pensions, trends in local governmental spending and revenues, and various aspects of intergovernmental aid. Although we have identified situations where state involvement is essential to guide local actions and to assure they are transparent, we have carefully weighed the positives and negatives for the necessity of state action in our recommendations. We urge state agencies and the state legislature to apply judiciously a similar calculus.

Given that local governments are constitutionally “creatures of the state,” it is sometimes convenient for state officials to ignore local implications consequences of their actions. But to do so is harmful to a healthy intergovernmental system in Florida — one that reflects the wide diversity of citizenry in our state.

Meeting the needs of citizens of Miami-Dade and those in Monticello is best accomplished by local government authority — not the heavy hand of Tallahassee.

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