As activists around America gear up for the 2012 presidential race, there is a risk we’ll lose sight of problems closer to home. This would be an expensive mistake. Bloated local government already threatens our wallets and our freedoms; in the absence of citizen pushback, it is sure to get worse.
One illustration of what we’re up against: the burgeoning number and power of so-called “special districts,” quasi-public agencies that borrow and spend billions of tax dollars with minimal oversight or accountability. The most familiar are school districts, but these bodies also include authorities, boards, commissions and public corporations in charge of thousands of facilities like airports, highways, bridges, dams, hospitals, sewer plants and housing complexes. While created for all sorts of high-minded reasons, special districts are typically run by unelected and well-connected bureaucrats who take their cues from political patrons. They enable local governments to circumvent debt restrictions, evade responsibility for unpopular projects, increase tax rates, threaten private property rights and — last but never least — steer contracts to crony capitalists. This murky landscape of money and power is often dubbed “shadow government.”
If its expansion continues unchecked, we will see more of shadow government’s trademark outcomes: stratospheric spending, corruption and irresponsible hiring. Here are a few examples:
The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority was the lead agency for Boston’s infamous Big Dig urban roadway project. Its $14 billion price tag broke records, while its shoddy standards and lack of oversight cost lives.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority spent $17,000 on a party, including a troupe of belly dancers, while unsanitary conditions nearly killed a public housing resident. Its executive director allegedly diverted $500,000 from agency funds to settle a sexual harrassment lawsuit. At the Buffalo, New York Municipal Housing Authority, a top administrator offered to pad contracts for builders willing to do private work on the side.
The New London, Connecticut Development Corporation condemned 115 private properties to promote new condominiums and other “improvements” in an aging neighborhood. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the land grab, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor dissented: “Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.”
If you want to work for a special district, your campaign activities will often trump your competence. At two of New Jersey’s major sewer authorities, commissioners openly hired on the basis of political affiliations. At West Virginia’s Parkway, Economic Development and Tourism Authority, over 35 members of the same family got jobs in one department.
The bottom line: It is easy for the denizens of shadow government to make bad and self-serving decisions when they know no one is paying attention. They believe Tea Party activists are too distracted by federal issues to care. You can prove them wrong.
Amy Handlin is Associate Professor of Marketing at Monmouth University and Deputy Minority Leader of the Republican Party in the New Jersey General Assembly