by Lowman S. Henry | February 08, 2008

Central planners are working hard in PA

The State Planning Board. The name itself evokes images of Soviet style top-down government. The image is not far off the mark.

With attention focused on the Presidential race most Pennsylvanians are paying little, if any, attention to their local government. Under cover of that apathy the forces of centralized big government are quietly laying the groundwork for what could be sweeping changes in the way municipal services are delivered in this state.

Impetus for the current debate came from the venerable Brookings Institution which in 2003 issued a report that essentially blamed Pennsylvania’s sluggish economy on the fact there are over 2,500 local governments in the commonwealth. This, concluded Brookings, has created an inefficiency that stifles economic growth.

Brookings missed the mark. The report failed to place appropriate blame on state government which in recent decades has created a regressive, uncompetitive tax system coupled with a onerous regulatory climate that make us an unattractive place to expand or locate a business. Conversely, Brookings did not give, in particular, township governments credit for their low tax rates and remarkable efficiency in delivering services.

The existence of a State Planning Board likely comes as news to most Pennsylvanians. It was revitalized by Governor Ed Rendell in the wake of the Brookings report and has been working hard to develop and recommend policies that would force municipal consolidations and mergers. Consistent with the Rendell Administration’s overall philosophy to extend the reach of state government into every aspect of our lives, the State Planning Board and its supporters are seeking to expand their control over municipal governments.

It is an elitist philosophy wherein the central planners think they know better than local elected officials what is best for their citizens. For proponents of big government, bigger is always better. But is it? If bigger is better then the City of Philadelphia would be the penultimate example of government efficiency. Instead, high tax rates have driven business out of the city; and Philadelphia has suffered a serious population decline because of joblessness, high taxes, crime, a poor system of public education, corruption and a multitude of other problems that have made it not the best place in which to live, work (if you can find it), and raise a family.

Conversely, townships are doing well. Pennsylvanians are moving to townships in droves, in the process abandoning Philadelphia and other cities. Why? Because township governments are providing a place to live with lower taxes, more jobs opportunities, less crime and a higher overall quality of life. This is happening, according to municipal government expert Wendell Cox, because “Anytime you increase the size of government, you increase the cost of services.” The converse is also true: smaller more local governments have proven to be more efficient.

The Rendell Administration though is bringing all its influence and resources to bear to destroy local government. In rural Cameron County, for example, the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development has promised a $1 million planning grant in support of a proposal to eliminate all local governments and consolidate municipal services at the county level. To date, local elected officials have stifled the effort, but their battle has only just begun.

Municipal consolidations and mergers, although not necessarily bad, should be the product of local initiative, not top-down state policies. The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc. has conducted numerous polls over the past fifteen years that have consistently found municipal governments receive the highest marks for efficiency and satisfaction. The research has also found that voters are not unwilling to consider mergers and consolidations, only that people are unwilling to give up the benefits of smaller, more accessible government unless they are convinced bigger is better.

The Rendell Administration though is seeking to end-run the process. It has a vision of turning Pennsylvania’s historic system of local government into a collection of regional “Philadelphias” run by those (themselves) who know better than we the people. The ash heap of history is littered with such failed collectivist attempts. Pennsylvania should think long and hard before going down such a path.