Local governments should be trying to form a more equitable partnership with state executive and legislative government, said former Gov. Scott Matheson.
"We make a big mistake when we think that we participate in the public process in Utah as equals," he said. "We simply do not. We deal in the public process in Utah with great disparity."Borrowing a line from George Orwell's "Animal Farm," Matheson said, "In this partnership we're all equal, but some, as you know, are more equal than others."
Matheson's speech was part of Friday's State and Local Government Conference, sponsored by Brigham Young University's J. Reuben Clark Law School and co-sponsored by the Utah League of Cities and Towns, the Utah Association of Counties, Common Cause and the Statewide Association of Prosecutors.
Today's local government-state government relationship harks back to when states "turned their backs" on local entities, because there wasn't enough money to keep the relationship going as it had been. So cities and counties formed a relationship with the federal government.
Local governments have also sought refuge in the courts, with mixed results. But despite any gains local entities have made in expanding rights and responsibilities, there's plenty of fight left, because state governments are still the more powerful in the partnership, he said.
One example of the adversarial relationship between state and local governments is the property tax issue. "How often have we heard the debate at the legislative level where legislators say, `It is now time to put a cap on property taxes.' The beauty of it all that is there are no state property taxes," he said.
State legislators are able to tamper with local option sales taxes in times of emergency, and then some continue to call for a cap on taxes that don't affect state in-come."That seems to point out again that the partnership is not necessarily equal."
The nation's most prominent example of a disparate relationship between state and local governments happened in California, said Matheson. Proposition 13, passed by state voters in 1978, has changed the nature of California's politics. "It has converted mayors and county commissioners into beggars for money in Sacramento, because they get on those airplanes and go up and stand in line and beg for money at the state level to pay for local services, which they simply cannot provide."
Local government leaders must be skilled in using the tools they have available to deal with the state. Local entities should keep a strong relationship with state advisory councils designed to meet local needs, he said.
"I think that you should be a full player in the political network process, so that by the time an issue comes for decisionmaking, you have been a full partner in terms of relationship and communication all along the way."