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.