Set the sun on government authorities

Set the sun on government authorities

As we wait for the Allegheny County Airport Authority to announce its latest “pump-priming” public subsidy to an airline that will fail – or on the oft chance that the state Attorney General’s Office announces an audit of the dubiously behaving authority – we commend for your rapt attention some words of wisdom from former Allegheny Institute Associate scholar H.B. Strickland, Ph.D.

They came in a September 2002 monogram, “The case for reining in governmental authorities.” And the following was culled from the “Key findings and recommendations” section.”

To wit:

“The use of authorities in Pennsylvania was adopted in order to circumvent constitutional debt limits which otherwise would have prevented the public from receiving basic services — an appropriate purpose at the time — but one which is no longer valid, as such restrictions have been all but eliminated.

“Although (authorities) are no longer needed, they continue to exist and be created.

“They are easy to create — voter approval is not required. Their supervision is minimal and accountability limited.

“Authorities are more expensive to finance than traditional governments and can jeopardize the credit status of their sponsoring basic public entities. Their management and finances are found to be hidden from public view and inspection. In addition, they weaken and fragment unnecessarily conventional government.

“Information about authorities is skimpy, fragmented and incomplete, including such basic data of their number and debt outstanding.

“Authorities have numerous supporters and proponents which include public officials, investment underwriters and legal counselors who obviously benefit personally from authority formation and existence.

“They compete unfairly with private enterprises, including the fact that they are exempt from many taxes and thereby deprive communities of significant business-generated income.

“Authorities identified as ‘industrial development’ are the principal disguised conduits for financing non-public, special interest projects — a questionable practice since the public-at-large does not appear to benefit in such undertakings.

“Authorities have served their original purpose well. But as the record will show, they are no longer needed. Today, both state and local basic governments are capable of providing essential public needs without sacrificing the open, accountable and participatory electoral form of a democratic government.”

And what did Professor Strickland recommend to end the political and economic machinations associated with government authorities?

To wit:

“Authorities, both state and local, should no longer be created.

“Current active authorities should be phased out with a date set certain for their demise.

“Reporting standards should be upgraded and oversight increased immediately.

“During the phase-out period, the following guidelines should be adhered to:

“Authority borrowing would only be allowed for emergency or legally required purposes and conducted on a competitive bid basis through its  traditional full faith and credit governmental sponsor.

“Any replacements needed for board membership would require an electoral vote.

“If ever a public need should arise to use authorities again, it should be as a last resort and the following conditions should be adopted:

“The intent and function would be limited and then only for a public-at-large purpose. Non-public, special interest projects would not be permitted;

“Voter approval would be mandatory for their creation;

“Board membership would require an electoral vote;

“All financing done on a competitive bid basis only.”

Talk about nipping poor public policy in the bud.

In conclusion, Strickland said that government authorities perpetuate “a shadowy, obscure form of government that is void of electoral endorsement.”

“In addition, these units disguised as public entities engage in activities that are not necessarily in the best interest of the public. As such they are political facades that are used as fronts for private endeavors.

“Not controlled or accountable to the electorate, authorities only add to the fragmentation of government. Costly to finance, their existence can threaten the financial well-being of the community they proclaim to serve.”

“Often competing with private enterprise they are a device whose convenience is no longer required or necessary. They should be eliminated.”

Seventeen years ago, Harry Strickland laid out a succinct and reasoned rationale for eliminating these “fronts” for questionable public policies.

Since then, his argument has been affirmed in Pittsburgh, repeatedly, by the likes of, but not limited to, the Pittsburgh Stadium Authority; the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority; the Port Authority of Allegheny County; the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and, of course, the Allegheny County Airport Authority, created by a rubber stamp and which has continued to operate in the same fashion.

Simply put, it’s past time for the people to demand that this kind of shadow governance be phased out and that accountability be restored.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).