This section is from the "The Subvention In The State Finances Of Pennsylvania" book, by Frederic B. Garver.
It is a fundamental principle of the distribution of powers within the several states of the federal union that local governments, such as the city, county, township and school-district, have no sphere of action that they may claim as their own and upon which the state may not encroach. Local governments are the creatures of the state *1. Their dependence upon constitutional provisions or upon enactments of the state legislature for their very existence gives rise to wide variations in the amount of power and in the number of functions that they exercise. It also makes readjustments in the division of powers between state and locality both easy and rapid. If the legislature decides, for example, that the counties are caring inadequately for the insane it may remove the service to the realm of state administration one year and return it to the counties or school-districts the next. Or, if a new service is created, such as the provision of free industrial education, it is possible for the legislature either to require one of the subordinate governmental units to assume it or to provide for direct state administration. In short, the local governments are completely at the mercy of the state legislature with respect to the functions they may exercise.
*1 Dillon, Municipal Corporations, (5 ed.), I, Sec. 33, pp. 61 ff.
The legislature may, however, be restrained by the constitution of the state from interfering too extensively in local affairs, and it is not unusual to find in state constitutions grants of power directly to the local units. Moreover, a less tangible but equally significant restraint is exercised by political custom and by the ingrained opinions of the people as to what are "local," and what "state" affairs. Public opinion would not, in the United States, permit complete centralization, nor, on the other hand, complete decentralization.
The many legal enactments that fix the limits of local government are, of course, influenced to a great extent by ideas and ideals that are the result of many hundreds of years of Anglo-American experience in local self-government. But aside from these intangible influences, which have their effects upon all governmental practices, the following factors determine more immediately the distribution of functions between central and local authorities: (1) the success or failure of the state in administering the services *2 that it undertakes; (2) the success or failure of local authorities in the administration of the services assigned them; (3) the scope of the service, whether state-wide or local in its application; (4) the desirability of state-wide uniformity or of local variations in rendering the service; *3 (5) the advantage that ruling political parties may derive from the division of power; (6) and, finally, the relative revenue resources of the state and of the local governments.
*2 The term "service" will be used in this essay to include the exercise of any function of government in which public authorities furnish satisfactions or wealth directly to the community. Thus education is a service; the administration of poor relief is a service; the administration of justice is a service; so too, of course, the provision of water, lighting and drainage are services. But the work of an officer whose duties relate solely to inter-departmental affairs or of one who is concerned solely with general governmental affairs is excluded. The members of the state legislature do not provide a service in the sense in which the word will hereafter be employed.
*3 In some services, notably in education, both uniformity and variation are necessary.
The last factor mentioned as determining the division of governmental functions has received scant consideration at the hands of writers on political science. This is largely due to the way in which it operates. Ordinarily, we do not find that a surplus of state revenue is set forth as a reason why a given service, say the building of highways, should be undertaken by the central rather than by the local governments. But the existence of a surplus of state revenue is an ever-present temptation to legislatures to expand existing state functions or to discover new ones. The most notable example of such results following the development of a surplus is to be found in the financial history of the United States from 1880 to 1893. No one today doubts that the origin of the present extravagant pension system and of the equally extravagant and fundamentally less justifiable appropriations for the improvement of rivers and harbors is to be traced, in part, to the surplus national revenues of the 'eighties. Once such a service is taken up it is, of course, almost impossible for the government to abandon it, and it, therefore, continues as a state, or national, or local service. In time people usually come to regard it as necessarily adapted to administration by the governmental unit that, because of its revenue resources, was able to support it, at the time demand for the service appeared.
When, however, a state employs the general property tax for the support of both central and local governments, revenue resources are less likely to determine the distribution of functions. For, if the state revenues are raised by a surtax upon local assessments, there can be no surplus in the state treasury that does not accrue from the same tax that also supports local governments. Hence there can be no preference on grounds of superior revenue resources for selecting either state or locality to administer a given service.
Now it not infrequently happens that the various factors enumerated at the beginning of this chapter as determining the division of functions between state and local governments are in conflict. The state government may have an exceedingly bad record in the administration of the services it undertakes to provide, while the record of the counties and cities may be good. Yet the state may have the funds to undertake new services and the localities may not. Or the localities may have little revenue and bad records in administration, but the service demanding expansion may be so intimately connected with local political life, and so heterogeneous in its nature that complete state control will not be tolerated.
Again it may happen, as is the case with elementary and secondary education, that the service is one in which there is a state-wide interest, and in which a certain amount of uniformity is demanded, but in which the need for variation and local control is very great. Here local administration with central control is necessary. Education is obviously not the only function of the state in which the necessity for central supervision is present. The state as a governmental unit representing the larger community, needs to have some voice in the administration of roads, in general poor relief, in the care and maintenance of defectives and in sanitation.
When the duality of interest just mentioned exists, the state frequently permits or requires the locality to provide the service and to pay the cost out of the local treasury, but the conditions under which the service is rendered, the standards that shall be maintained, and even the amount of money to be expended upon it, are fixed by legislative enactment. These assigned services are very common and usually include police in the narrower sense, the administration of justice, and very frequently, elementary education, road making, and poor relief.
But the difficulty inherent in all assigned services is that while the central government may prescribe by law, and in great detail, the sort of service required, and may set up standards of performance, it has no effective means for controlling the local administration and of compelling observance of the law. Very often popular notions of liberty and freedom in local government prevent the establishment of the central supervision necessary to attain these standards.