May 5, 2017
Many local government leaders across Michigan aren't content with their jurisdiction's relationship with state government, according to a new survey by University of Michigan researchers.
The latest Michigan Public Policy Survey explored factors that affect state-local relations and how those relations could be improved. Officials from more than 1,300 cities, counties, townships and villages participated in the study, conducted by the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.
A recent National League of Cities report lists Michigan as one of seven states with the most frequently imposed state preemption of local authority, and the new CLOSUP poll results are a testament to this.
Slightly more local leaders — 49 percent vs. 46 percent — describe their jurisdiction's overall relationship with the state as either fair (36 percent) or poor (13 percent) than classify it as good (40 percent) or excellent (6 percent).
"Ideally, we'd want our state and local governments to be working as partners, not adversaries, in order to deliver effective and efficient public services," said Debra Horner, project manager at CLOSUP.
The survey identified issues that concern a majority of local leaders. They are:
• 70 percent of local leaders feel the state is taking away too much authority from local governments.
• 67 percent say the state holds local jurisdictions to a higher standard than it holds itself.
• 57 percent believe the state plays favorites, treating some local jurisdictions better than others.
• 56 percent feel the system of funding Michigan's local governments negatively impacts state-local relations.
• 50 percent say the state government's decision-making is not transparent.
"In the American system, local governments sit at the bottom of the food chain, and across the country there appears to be a growing tension between states and many of their local governments," said Thomas Ivacko, program manager at CLOSUP.
"More and more state governments are pre-empting local authority on a range of policy issues, such as anti-discrimination laws, plastic bag bans, ride-sharing service regulation and more. The trend is pronounced in Michigan."
In recent years, the state has pre-empted local authority in areas of taxation and revenue, local minimum-wage laws, ballot issues and the emergency manager law.
Previous CLOSUP findings have highlighted local leaders' concerns about many factors that could affect the relationship between the state and its local governments, including the state's system of funding local governments, low opinions of the job performance of state policymakers and unfunded mandates imposed on local governments.
While these and other factors do loom large in the view of local leaders, the researchers say, the latest report found that three factors appear to carry particular weight in local leaders' assessments. They are: local leaders' trust in the state government, whether they think state officials value local leaders' input, and whether they view communications with the state in positive or negative terms.
More than with any other factors, the researchers found that positive answers to questions about these factors correlated with local officials' belief that their governments have good relationships with the state. But not many officials fell into this category.
Statewide, just 22 percent of local leaders trust the state government, and 43 percent believe that Michigan's state government officials value input from local officials. Just 31 percent believe that communications between their jurisdiction and the state is a positive factor in state-local relations.
How could relations be improved? Better communication, local leaders say.
When asked outright what both local leaders and state government officials could do to improve relationships, mentions of communication far outpaced other topics. The greatest number of responses urge the state to more actively seek input from local governments before changing laws, and generally to listen to local jurisdictions' perspectives and work to improve communications.
While two-thirds of local officials report that they contact the state numerous times each year on issues that affect them, only 39 percent of local leaders said the reverse was true. And 58 percent say they rarely or never hear from state officials regarding state actions affecting their jurisdiction.
"These findings suggest that simple efforts at fostering better communication between the state and local government could go a long way toward improving state-local relations, at little cost," Horner said.