There has been no greater mantra espoused by Georgia Republicans since assuming their state level majority than that of "local control." It has recently been paired with the national theme of "taxed enough already" to become twin bumper sticker slogans than can quickly guide a modern conservative to quick decisions that require little thought or attempt to ponder the actual issues at hand.
The idea does have merit in the reservoir of conservative thought. Decisions made by government should be made at the lowest level that is practical. The principle evokes a linkage back to the fact that a free person is to make his own decisions and chart his own destiny. If government must intrude, it should then involve the fewest number of people determining how these intrusions will occur -- and at what price.
There are limits to the bounds of local control, however. We don't put the decisions of our national defense or when we go to war in the hands of mayors or county commissioners. Ultimately these decisions affect us all, and require the actions (or inactions) of an entire country to be effective. This underlies the need for a strong federal government.
The trick, of course, is to balance the concept of local control with the need for the limited government conservatives support to be effective. The state, quite literally, is caught in the middle.
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This conflict has begun to manifest itself with strong local governments and their elected officials jockeying with their state counterparts for relatively fixed revenue streams as they try to serve a growing population. The local control's counterbalance of "taxed enough already" becomes a wedge that is increasingly driven between the state and local satellites as politicians seek to satisfy a demand for lower taxes while simultaneously providing more services. Or, as they just try to keep up with existing services while serving a rapidly growing population.
The recent battle over transportation funding serves as a primary, though not unique, example. As the joint study committee met, local government officials either individually or as represented by their lobbying groups asked for more money (with the presumption that the state would raise the taxes), but demanded that the local taxes they had added to the user fee be left unencumbered and not restricted to transportation uses.
When the first version of the bill arrived, the state's plan was to phase out virtually a half-billion dollars per year of taxes that have been added to our fuel bills but were not being used for transportation. Despite these taxes being levied on "special purpose" local referendums and thus not to be considered perpetual taxes, local governments cried that the state was starving their education budgets and likely forcing property tax increases if this tax held. Ultimately, it did not. The local governments made the minor concession that they would cap the taxes at gas prices of $3.00 per gallon. Locals are still grousing over this potential loss of a small sliver of revenue.
Meanwhile, the state has been under pressure to restore education funding to the pre-recession level. The revenue growth above mandatory expenditure items has been dedicated almost exclusively to education. Virtually all of this money went directly to local school boards, while many continue to decry out-of-control state-level spending.
The local control mantra has allowed a state government to become a bit of the boogeyman in local politics, with county commissioners, school board members and city council representatives making state taxation an opportunity to re-direct voters from their own accountability.
County governments now receive virtually all property taxes. The state is all but out of this area. County governments are able to add sales taxes to groceries, but the state does not. The city of Atlanta now has 4 percent sales taxes matching the state's take, with most counties in the state adding 2 to 3 percent. And in a recovering real estate market, the locals' take is growing rapidly.
Kyle Wingfield, a columnist for the AJC, has been spotlighting Fulton County's reassessments, which have some residents noting a 60 percent increase in their assessments. My own Cobb County assessment went up 24 percent. I'm not complaining, as the market value is likely a slight bit higher. That's a good thing.
But those who continue to look to the state for both more money and a convenient scapegoat on fiscal policy may need to start looking a little closer to home. County and city budgets are getting flush again. Constantly blaming the state for local funding problems will be difficult to defend when local revenues are increasing significantly faster than the state's coffers. It's time to offer the same level of scrutiny to our counties and our cities. That is a duty we owe to the concept of local control.
Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.