04 April 2006

The RTD Strike and the Constitution

Colorado's regional transportation district has half of its employees or so on strike. Obviously, this disrupts bus and light rail service. Far less obviously, there are all sorts of other govermental employees who are not on strike.

The doctors, nurses, adminstrators and orderlies at Denver Health and the Veteran's Administration Hospitals are carrying on business as usual. The Denver Public Schools are open. The garbage trucks are still making their rounds for the city. The parking enforcement division of the City and County of Denver is still operating with its regular efficiency. The regionally funded museums and cultural facilities are open for business, and no concerts at the regionally funded stadium district have been cancelled. Denver's Auraria campus is still full of students, and students are still going to class in Boulder at CU. The Post Offices are open, and Amtrack is still delivering people to Nebraska at a massive loss. The regional entity Denver Water is still keeping our taps running with clean water, and the regional entity that runs the sewage system is not ignoring clogged mainline sewers.

Most of the time, we bemoan how fragmented our government is, to the point where most people are only dimly aware, if aware at all, what governmental entities serve them, and what divisions of those governments are tied to what elected officials and taxes. But, when an institutionally paralyzing event occurs, like a strike involving much of a governmental entity's work force, or a federal government shutdown resulting from the failure of Congress to pass all of the appropriations bills necessary to keep things running occurs, the benefits of this fragmentation are obvious, if often overlooked.

If we had a more consolidated system of government, where, for example, RTD and the Denver Public Schools were all in the same governmental entity, it is very likely that the labor issues impacting RTD would produce a wider labor action involving the entire city. Precedents set in negotiations with city bus drivers would be certain to impact negotiations with garbage truck and school bus drivers. Police, who are now something of an uninvolved party during an RTD strike, as they maintain boundaries between protesting strikers and RTD management, might have quite a different measure of distance if they were direct employees of the managment against which RTD drivers were striking.

If there were a single regional government handling all of the regional government functions in the metropolitan area, water and sewage system operators might take a much greater interest in the fate of RTD drivers, and the talks might directly impact, for example, museum delivery truck drivers.

The benefits, of course, come with powerful downsides. A government that many voters don't know exist, and fewer voters have the ability to meaningfully police even at election time, simply because they don't know the candidates and don't know what the incumbents have been doing, are not going to be as responsive, and hte more entities there are, the harder it is for voters to keep track of all the races. Decisions in downticket races are often not made until a few days before a voter goes to the polls and often based on extremely limited information. The fragmentation of government budgets among many entities also makes it almost certain that some governmental functions will be overfunded, while others are underfunded, for reasons that have little or no relationship to the relative urgency of that entity's need for our tax dollars.

If voters end up approving a tax increase for more than turns out to be needed to improve the zoo and art museum, the funds can't be shifted to some line item of spending that turned out to be insufficient, perhaps bridge repair or ER staffing. There is no mechanism to weigh the respective requests for funds in anything approaching a fine tuned manner. Voters tend to focus on gross factors -- would a new art museum be nice, or are my taxes burdensome, rather than the details of precisely how much is requested in a ballot issue. A city council, or state legislature, in contrast, routinely makes those kinds of choices, deciding perhaps, whether to upgrade old community college laboratories or the county fairground's electrical system in the same capital budget, or shifting dollars from enforcement of traffic violations to watering parks.

Thus, as we think about the little "c" constitution, that is, the way government is organized (far less of which is set out in a single comprehensive document that most people realize), it is important to balance the robust ability of fragmented governments to carry on, with the unresponsiveness and misallocation of resources that inevitably flows from such an arrangement.