LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 23: Former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo during his preliminary hearing at Los Angeles Superior Court February 23, 2011 in Los Angeles, California Rizzo was rushed to a local hospital Wednesday after experiencing chest pains during a lunch break in the ongoing court hearing that will determine whether he will stand trial for public corruption. (Photo by Irfan Khan-Pool/Getty Images)
The California legislature, desperate to do something about municipal corruption in Bell, has decided that the solution is legislation to give the state auditor more authority to invest municipal corruption around the state.
Sounds good? Maybe, but it's a nonsensical approach that's unlikely to do much good. The logic amounts to this: we don't know how to solve this problem from Sacramento, so we'll appoint someone else in Sacramento to solve this problem.
The hard truth is that a more powerful state auditor, 500 miles away, can't do much more about municipal corruption. The only real protection from such corruption are engaged citizens, watching their government.
Of course, California's governing system creates incentives for disengagement. Local officials have the power to spend money -- but they don't have the power to set tax rates, a consequence of Prop 13 and other measures that have limited the power to tax to 2/3 of the state legislature and 2/3 of local voters.
Since local officials can't raise taxes, businesses and taxpayer interests have little incentive to watch them closely and check how they're spending money -- because the thinking that a local official without the power to tax can't really hurt you.
So how do you boost engagement and check municipal corruption? By giving local elected officials more power and discretion -- including the power to set tax rates. That would give more members of the public more incentive to watch their local officials more closely. And it is those eyes and ears that can spot corruption -- and report it to local, or state, authorities as need be.
Of course, that would require the state to give up power. Instead the state solution is to empower state government. Which is why this state auditor legislation isn't much of a solution.