May 1 2006

While local control has deep roots in Pennsylvania, state government in the 21st century should take a more active role in assisting and leading local government.

(May 2006) Pennsylvania has a strong tradition of local control. When it comes to education, planning, government services and more, the ethos of local control is a long-standing tradition. The long-standing argument for strong local control? It puts the process of governing and providing government services very close to the people.

Yet there are disadvantages, too. And despite the long-standing tradition of local control, there’s a growing need for state government to take on a larger role when it comes to collaborating with local government. In our global society, many local governments simply don’t have the resources for high quality, efficient service delivery if Pennsylvania is to compete in the 21st century.

What’s the role of state government?

According to the Pennsylvania Constitution, state government is vested with almost all power and authority over local governments. In short, local governments – that is, municipalities – exist because the state says they can exist. But most people, from state legislators to local government leaders to the general public, believe strongly in the sovereignty of local government and don’t fully realize or act on the state’s power and responsibility The result? A disconnect between state government and local governments in many policy areas, and a disjointed system of local government that lacks regional coordination, economies of scale, and big-picture thinking.

Pennsylvania policymakers and lawmakers should view state and local government as one system of governance, recognizing how state decisions impact local governments and vice-versa: decisions on how resources are allocated, taxes are imposed and services are provided.

Structural consolidation? Functional consolidation?

In another time and place – even another time in Pennsylvania – structural consolidation was considered a viable option. Merging communities into one, however, is tough. In fact, in a state with a strong tradition of local control, structural consolidation may be, for the most part, a non-starter. It’s a difficult decision for politicians to make because there are few positive political aspects. And there are some state legal and constitutional provisions limiting structural consolidation. For example, referenda requirements are an obstacle for municipalities seeking to merge or consolidate

Functional consolidation, however, should be considered in many cases. Municipalities can join efforts to provide services or collect taxes and achieve some economies of scale while working together for the best interest of the region – not just a small locale. State government could encourage functional cooperation through incentives such as grants or technical assistance for cooperating communities. As one onlooker described the potential state role, state government should “bribe local officials to think creatively.”

Does tax reform fit into this equation anywhere?

Perhaps a change in government structure may help resolve the complicated local tax systems that exist in Pennsylvania. The success of consolidated services could be hampered unless there’s also a restructuring of the revenue system that supports spending. In short, tax reform is a key component, and state government plays a key role.

Of course, it won’t be easy. Some very realistic roadblocks:


  • There likely will be resistance from local government officials;
  • It’s also likely residents who fear “big government” will resist change;
  • And there are legitimate obstacles that make any consolidation of efforts difficult – including uneven wealth distribution among communities, pension problems, or more.


But the state has an opportunity – and the responsibility – to tackle the issues that could make a difference in Pennsylvania’s ability to compete in a global marketplace. In January 2007, a new gubernatorial term begins, and with that comes the opportunity to set an agenda for Pennsylvania’s future. Perhaps there’s a window of opportunity for a commission to study and make recommendations on restructuring and financing local government. Those recommendations just might enhance the state’s ability to compete on a global level.