Dr. Joshua Sapotichne is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University. His areas of research and teaching include urban politics and American public policy.
Alexander Swindle is a Policy Fellow at IPPSR graduating in May 2017. They sat down to discuss state-local relations in Michigan. Here is a transcript:
AS: You make the argument that Michigan Cities are essentially set up to fail by state policy. What research questions did you start with to explore the challenging relationship between the state and its local governments?
JS: We questioned the policy or institutional choices made that can place limitations on local governments. We set out to get a sense of how difficult states can make it on their local governments from a fiscal standpoint. Fiscal stress is the struggle to balance both revenue and expenditures. In Michigan we saw limited revenue sharing from the state paired with expenditure pressures from the state. When compared to other states by our metrics, Michigan’s fiscal state came out at the bottom of the list. Michigan did not set out to make it difficult for local governments. The problems we see are a cumulative result of choices made over time.
AS: At the IPPSR forum you highlighted the accountability struggle in Flint. Who should be held most accountable for urban fiscal problems amidst the influences of state policy, local leaders, and outside economic forces?
JS: When an emergency manager is in a city, it is not clear whom to run to when a problem becomes a crisis. When the water resource in Flint was changed we saw a public outcry from residents. But where did they turn? We saw people protesting city hall, visiting city council meetings, and publicly blaming the mayor. Emails revealed residents seeking help from the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services. Residents even petitioned the White House for a response. What about the emergency manager? The emergency manager is responsible for the response to local problems. Moving forward, they must be responsible for the budget decisions they make. The state must be careful to design emergency management policy that includes local input. In regards to outside economic forces, these cities are in a difficult position. They have struggled with disinvestment and de-population for years. But many cities across the country face these issues. What is different in Michigan is the limited level of state support for local governments with revenue and expenditure problems.
AS: Do you feel local governments tend to receive an unjust level of blame for fiscal problems?
JS: No other state exclusively blames local officials the way Michigan does. Many states are facing similar issues with financially struggling cities but these problems stem from a variety of factors. Of course local leaders hold a level of responsibility but there is also structural stress. In Michigan we see limited efforts to include local governments when making changes. This shows distrust instead of support. Under Act 47, Pennsylvania has an emergency-resources approach that supports local governments over an extended period or time. While it may be criticized for taking long, the decisions made include local input.
AS: You found Michigan’s government to aggressively limit local input during its fiscal interventions. Could the approaches in states like Pennsylvania be implemented in Michigan?
JS: What makes Pennsylvania’s approach possible is the existence of a Department of Community and Economic Development. This agency gives a voice to local governments in the designing of emergency management policy. Michigan does not have anything similar to this and instead sought the advice of the treasury department when designing policy. The existence of a community and economic development agency in a state changes the implementation of emergency management law. Institutions like these can create a better political environment.
AS: What do you consider the most important strategy to improve state-local relations, moving forward?
JS: There needs to be an institutional outlet at the state level, ideally a cabinet level department or agency that facilitates local input. It would have to be a state agency that sees local governments as partners. A partnership view makes it easier to diagnose why a city is in a difficult spot.
AS: What related research questions are you planning to ask in the near future?
JS: We are studying the effectiveness of different types of state interventions in financially distressed cities. We are also assessing the choices that are made in Michigan. I can tell you with a high degree of certainty that Michigan’s approach for managing fiscal stress is not the best solution. We want to clarify the answer to what should be done so we can make clear recommendations. The large question is studying the amount of autonomy that states give their local governments.