Orange County has the lowest unemployment rate of any metropolitan area in California, and the third lowest unemployment rate in the nation. We are unique in the way we do business, and we have the innovation and industry diversification to withstand the toughest economic climates. When California Forward approached the Orange County Business Council (OCBC) to host a civic forum about what it would take to help the state in reforming the way it governs, we said, “You came to the right place.” The theme that emerged from the forum was clear and unanimous: local control, local decision-making, and lessened state mandates are the keys to California’s economic recovery.
Local government operates best when it has the freedom to allocate funds as to meet its unique community needs, without the burden of one-size-fits-all state mandates and regulations. The success of OC’s local sales tax Measure M is an example of the power of local funding and local control effectively and efficiently meeting local needs. The half-cent sales tax was approved by voters to fund specific voter-approved improvements to Orange County’s transportation and traffic projects. The 20-year project list—including road widenings, freeway improvements, bridge retrofits, transit improvements, and more–was completed in full, on-time, and under-budget, with enough money left over to actually add projects! Because of this success, voters re-authorized phase two of the program with a 70 percent vote, knowing that in Orange County “promises made were promises kept.”
There are certainly risks associated with increased responsibility for local governments, and ensuring taxpayer dollars are allocated appropriately requires accountability from both public officials and the voters. Measureable outcomes are needed to demonstrate that programs are working the way they were intended, and the citizenry must be engaged in the actions of their public officials in order to hold them accountable for their decisions. Frankly, the hesitancy to hand over control to local governments is misplaced. At the local level, officials have a more direct connection with their constituents, with issues of accountability in full evidence at weekly City Council meetings. Generally, if local officials aren’t doing their job, they don’t stay in office very long.
The final piece that needs to accompany a shift towards greater local control is litigation reform. Pushing the responsibility down to the local level means the pool for potential litigants gets bigger. Without the protection of the state, local communities can be buried under lawsuits that limit the very activity the realignment was meant to help.
We don’t live in a “one-size-fits-all” state. Our local leaders know what works best for their communities and need the ability to allocate funds as they see fit for programs that have demonstrated success. An engaged electorate, accountable public officials, fewer opportunities for costly litigation, and fewer stifling state mandates can result in efficient local government. If local government works well, state government can follow their lead and a better system will result for everyone.
Lucy Dunn is President and CEO of the Orange County Business Council