The Problem With the Bell Reforms

State Assemblymember Hector De La Torre and other legislators have put together a package of legislation that seeks to prevent other cities from adopting the scandalously high salaries and benefits recently discovered in the Southern California city of Bell.

At one level, the package makes sense. There would be new sanctions on council members who give themselves high salaries. All raises, with a loophole for cost of living raises that could be exploited, would require a public vote by a legislative body. And there's modest legislation that requires the salaries of all local and state offiicals to be posted on their office's web site. (Why modest? Because it's limited to elected and appointed officials. The real protection involves posting the salary of every public employee, with their name, on the Internet).

It's hard to quarrel with any of this, but one wonders: how will this be enforced? The state is in no position to keep an eye on all of California's local governments. It needs citizens, engaged citizens, to be minding the store.

And that sort of engagement is discouraged by California's heavily centralized system of government. Most decisions of consequence -- including how to prevent more Bell-type scandals -- takes place in Sacramento, where officials have a near monopoly on the power to tax (a monopoly that has developed and grown in the three decades since the passage of Prop 13). Local governments have become spending entities, so the only people and groups that watch local governments are interested in spending -- particularly public employee unions. They have little incentive to object to over-the-top spending.

The way to prevent more Bells is to give local governments more power to raise revenues and taxes. In proposing that, the idea is not to have local governments raise more taxes. The idea, instead, is to force business groups and taxpayers to pay more attention to local governments -- since a city council or school board with tax powers is a potential threat to business and taxpayers. Having those kinds of interests engaged in local governments would provide a crucial check on spending -- and make the kind of reforms the legislature is offering truly enforceable.

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