Resentment over states, localities

Governing, a magazine targeted at state and local government leaders, needs to reprise a piece of cover art that graced an edition published in the early 1990s. The illustration depicted a pink-slip-like progress report to governments facing recessionary pressures. The status report options included catchy “R-word” categories like “right-sized,” “reorganized,” “restructured” and “reinvented.” But the check mark was in a “none of the above” category. In the early 1990s, government was seemingly slow to respond to recession. Today, it may be doing worse. And resentment over many governments’ lagging response is a driving force in nationwide wrong-track sentiment.

Lately, in focus groups on disparate topics, voters want to talk about government’s response to the recession, even if that is not the topic. The gist of the sentiment expressed in their remarks is a paraphrase of the old politician’s saw, “America’s families have had to tighten their belt; it’s about time that government did the same.” But it gets more graphic. Voters want to tell tales, old tales, of urban legend sightings like the one about three guys patching a pothole, one with shovel in hand and two supervising. I’m even starting to hear more reprisals of the hundred-dollar hammer anecdote than I have in two decades.

What’s interesting is that state and local governments in many places have, in fact, done a lot more real downsizing and budget-cutting than at any time since World War II. Furloughs have become front-page news in some states and cities. Other frugal, even desperate, cutbacks are being made. But is the public taking note? Perhaps not. There’s a good chance that the real reforms needed are not pervasive enough nor well-enough publicized to penetrate the consciousness of the American public. Too many public managers may be too slow to make what Governing described decades ago as “the hard decisions that change inevitably will require.”

And there is the communications deficit. While some state and local governments are taking steps to respond to revenue shortfalls and budget deficits, they are not always publicizing those efforts like they should. Trying to “make news” about negative actions like government worker furloughs, public office hour reductions and refinancing of debt strikes some as counterintuitive. They are members of the “never-repeat-a-negative” school of thought. Even those governments that want to share the news about their responses to recession face a challenge. As local media outlets die off or reduce staff, it gets harder to find a means of getting local news out. And as the public’s media diet scatters across hundreds of outlets in broadcast and on the Web, many voters aren’t tuned into local news ever. 

Voters think that corporate America is cutting big-time while government is sandbagging. So they are resentful. And resentment is the most potent force in all of politics. Instead of “arrogant capital” (using Kevin Phillips’s language describing populist anger of days gone by), voters today may think of “arrogant capitol,” with an O rather than an A.

There are two areas where government is ostensibly changing less than corporate America, to the detriment of government. First, corporations are doing a lot of reorganizing and consolidating. Governments aren’t really doing much of this. While local governments in the past merged services offered by cities and counties, or small school districts were consolidated, there are so many political forces opposed to taking away any local self-determination and control that consolidation is rare these days. But local governments are going to have to look closer at this option.

Voters also sense that state and local governments have not found a way to use technology to become more productive, as corporations have. States and localities must be seen using computers and the Internet more pervasively to serve the public more cost-effectively.

Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.