Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Why State Legislatures Are Hostile to Big Cities

Public Sector, Inc. pointed me at a very interesting study that just came out in the American Political Science Review. Called “No Strength in Numbers: The Failure of Big-City Bills in American State Legislatures, 1880–2000” by Gerald Gamm and Thad Kousser, the study looks at bills affecting big cities, and why they so often fail to pass the legislature.

The authors do their analysis by looking at what they call “district bills”, that is, those that affect only a single city, county or other district, or a handful of such districts. Contrary to what you might think, most of these bills aren’t about money. Only 9% of them involved transferring money to the locality. Rather, the bills are about empowerment. As the study puts it, “Almost always, district bills traffic not in funds or major programs but in authority, granting the locality the ability to conduct its business as its leaders and representatives define that business.” The fact that such a bill is necessary suggests that indeed state legislatures like to keep localities under their thumbs, making cities come begging to be allowed to do things.

Looking at district bills, the authors discover that they do indeed pass at a lower rate for big cities than small ones. Here’s their chart illustrating this:


Passage Rates of District Bills by City Population. Source: Study, Figure 2

This validates the common belief that bigger cities face bigger hurdles in the legislature. As the authors put it, “Large cities do face special burdens in state legislatures, as scholars and urban leaders have contended since the nineteenth century, and the burdens grow with city size.”

Having established that, the authors test a number of hypotheses about why that is. Among these are that legislatures have a particular hostility to the state’s largest city, that having a dominant size relative to the state’s population hurts a city’s chance of getting its bills passed, “bill fatigue” from large cities proposing too much legislation, partisan hostility, and racial animus towards blacks.

None of these were found to be statistically significant.

What then accounts for the failure? The authors conclude that it is, ironically, the very size of big cities’ delegations that work against them. These delegations are often divided, and those divisions lead to their bills failing. As they put it:

Bigger delegations create more opportunity for internal division and that internal division leads to legislative defeat. The tight link between delegation size and passage rates buttresses that argument. It also suggests an answer to the puzzle of why, even after the reapportionment revolution [i.e., one-man, one-vote], bills from big cities continue to lose more often than other district bills. Although the elimination of malapportionment gave big cities and other urban areas greater representation, it also saddled them with more representatives and thus increased the chances that their delegations might be internally divided.

In short, the likelihood of a city’s bill failing is related to the size of its delegation. The bigger the delegation, the more likely it is to fail:


Substantive Impact of City Delegation Size on Passage Rates. Source: Study, Figure 5

Additionally, the authors found that while black population percentage did not impact passages rates, immigrant percentages did. The greater the foreign born population of a city, the more likely it is that its bills will fail. The authors say, “This variable helps explain why bills from cities such as New York and Chicago, hubs of immigration relative to the rest of their states, fare more poorly than bills from cities such as Richmond and Minneapolis, which are microcosms of their states.” They stress that they did not prove this was specifically because of discrimination.

The takeaway from this is that at the end of the day, the problems facing cities in state legislatures may be self-inflicted. If they could promote caucus unity, they would be much more likely to get what they want. I use the term “caucus” loosely here as I don’t often see references to any sort of official caucus representing cities or regions in legislatures. Perhaps it’s time for that to change.

This study explains very well, for example, the travails of the proposed IndyConnect transit plan for Indianapolis in the Indiana General Assembly. It has not been rural legislators who have led the opposition, but local ones. These include people like Sen. Brent Waltz, who represents the south side of Indianapolis and would rather widen north side neighborhood streets than implement transit, and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, who is from the north suburbs, representing the area where local officials have most promoted a rail line. They are both Republicans, but prior to his retirement, Democrat Bill Crawford, a long time African American political leader, had voiced skepticism as well. If local legislators won’t vote for the bill, why should anyone else?

This immediately suggests a response for cities. Just as we’ve seen attempts to bring more regional unity among local leaders, such as Chicago’s Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, local leaders need to invest significant effort into building delegational unity behind major legislative initiatives prior to trying to get anything passed. This is likely to be very difficult on a regional basis, but for the biggest cities that have multiple representatives even for the core municipality, it should hopefully be more doable (if not easy). Until that nut gets cracked, cities should perhaps resign themselves to continued legislative frustration.

13 Comments
Topics: Public Policy

13 Responses to “Why State Legislatures Are Hostile to Big Cities”

  1. PHL says:

    May be interesting to look at “district bill” success rates in capital cities that have 500k+ population (Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Columbus, etc.).

    My guess is district bills are disproportionally more likely to be successful for the capital’s metro area- hard to deny your state’s largest urban center needs improved efficiency/control if you have to see it every day.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    The reason those cities are at all interesting is precisely that they don’t enforce unity as much as small towns. In a small town, everyone is unified, in the sense of knowing their place. If you complain that the mayor’s son raped you, you and your entire family will be shunned, harassed, and threatened with violence, and if you complain to the local cops they won’t even take the complaint. In a city, it’s much harder to achieve this sort of unity – the elite’s too big to maintain personal loyalty, so it needs to have at least some democratic norms to avoid the pitchfork squad, and this also requires it to let people be more. And letting people be is exactly the opposite of unity.

  3. Kate Harper says:

    Seriously, did you correlate the PARTY of the city with the Majority Party in the legislature ? Our biggest city is Philadelphia and is very Democratic and its caucus is Democratic. The majority party here this Session is Republican. I suspect that has something to do with success or failure of “urban” [Democratic] proposals. On the other hand, we recently passed a Transportation bill that greatly benefitted the City’s mass transit system and it was Suburban legislators, R and D, who worked together to get it done….Urban legislators need to make friends outside the City

  4. Tone says:

    “Urban legislators need to make friends outside the City”

    And the reverse.

  5. Chris Barnett says:

    I would want to read exactly how they “tested various hypotheses”, but color me skeptical.

    First, there are not a lot of US cities with population over 500,000, 33 in 22 states including DC, as of Census 2010. There were fewer the further back one looks. Sample size and distribution is therefore a concern here. (There are 256 other cities between 100,000 and 500,000, and every state has a city of at least 100,000 so it doesn’t raise the same concerns.)

    Secondly, in positing that “size of delegation” plays a significant role, a non-trivial consideration is therefore also the size of the legislature. I think it would have been more mathematically useful to express the “size of delegation” instead as “percentage of legislature in city’s delegation”. Using that factor, I wonder whether the correlation still holds up.

  6. Chris Barnett says:

    My error: 4 states do not have a city of 100,000: DE, ME, VT, WV.

    But in trying to discern “state” patterns, a sampling that includes 46/50 states is still far better than one that includes only 21/50.

  7. Kenny says:

    Did they look at the content of these bills? One might expect that big cities are more likely to be asking for some state-level authority to be delegated to the city, while smaller cities are more likely to be asking for something based on a truly unique feature of the city (for instance, if it happens to be the site of a major power plant for the state, or be isolated from the rest of the state geographically, or have recently suffered a major local disaster).

  8. @Kate Harper, it wasn’t me who did the study. However, this sort of party affiliation analysis was done and was found not to be statistically significant in determining why bills failed.

  9. @Chris Barnett, the problem with your suggestion is that percentage of delegation size is simply another way of saying the percentage of a state’s population the city has. That variable was tested and was not statistically significant.

  10. Chris Barnett says:

    Upon further reflection…this one is really a “duh” study.

    One of the distinguishing characteristics of cities is that they are almost always less homogeneous (more diverse in incomes and ethnicities) than the surrounding small cities, towns, and countryside that make up the majority of most US states.

    I think one would reasonably expect less-homogeneous groups (such as city-residents) to have internal divisions and differing visions of “the common good”.

  11. guy77money says:

    The reason is the small towns are struggling to keep up government services and are cutting services. Their tax base is eroding while large cities tax base is expanding.

    The large cities are spending crazy amount of tax money on stadiums, hotels and shopping areas. These expenditures have nothing to do with infrastructure. They are give away’s to political cronies who are stuffing money into politician’s pockets so that they can be reelected. The contracts are so badly written that any self respecting contract lawyer would laugh at the wording.

    Case in point: Cincinnati is looking to put in a expensive street cable car system that will not support itself. They want to cancel the contract, but to back out out of it would cost 30 million dollars. The street cars will never produce enough money or commerce to even come close to paying for the expenditure.

    When government spends money on the roads they are used for commerce. All those semi’s, delivery trucks, work vans, people getting to and from work. Is the cable, post man, sewer, gas, water, sales people and I could go on and on going to use cable car????? NOOOOOOOO!! This also applies to light rail.

    Towns just want basic services and large cities are spending large sums on sports. The only NFL franchise worth public money are the Green Bay Packers. People will travel to Green Bay year round and stay at the hotels and motels, see the sites and eat at the restaurants in and around Green Bay and spend money. Green Bay even has a casino that benefits from the franchise.

    Both Cincinnati and Indianapolis spent insane amounts of money to build NFL stadiums (indy did basketball too) using tax payer money. These franchises are even propped up using property taxes. The pay back comes no where close to paying back the tax base of the money being spent. Yet free tickets and suite space are given away to politicians to cement the bad deals.

    The exception to this is the Cincinnati (baseball in general) Reds. The Reds play in the summer months when people take vacation. People will come from all over to see baseball, take in the Cincinnati Zoo, Kings Island, the Aquarium and other sites bringing in large amounts of money to the surrounding area. They play 82 home games with the majority being played outdoors in great weather.

    The Indianapolis Colts will only play 10 home games a season. Half of the games will be played in the cold months and on Sunday or a school day thus making it almost impossible for patrons to make Indianapolis a vacation destination. There are few families at NFL games and the cost of a game is substantially more expensive then a Reds baseball game.

    To sum up: Large cities are spending money foolishly while most smaller towns just want money to fund basic (what governments are supposed to do!) services. NOW YOU KNOW THE REST OF THE STORY – as Paul Harvey used to say!

  12. guy77money says:

    Oh by the way Indianapolis’s bond rating got slashed from AAA to AA. Basic services Mayor Ballard – not political giveaways!
    Thank god interest rates are artificially low. If they start going up then all these cities floating these bonds will be crushed.

  13. guy77money says:

    I forgot to mention the Green Bay Packers is owned by stock holders.

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