Recession Recovery: Local Governments Must Guide the Way

People are finally starting to bounce back from the recession, and they’re looking to local governments -- not the feds or the states -- to guide them into a better future.
by | April 2012

In the 21 miles between the airport and Disney World, it is possible to find the Florida you’ve been reading about in the news over the past five years.

The drive produces evidence of some of the state’s 2 million mortgage holders who owe an average of $65,000 or more on their houses than they are worth, a strong sign that the housing market is still in deep trouble here. Yet there is also evidence of the 71 percent year-over-year increase in housing starts in the city.

Florida’s retail market also serves up similar distinctions. The desolation of a half-dozen shuttered or failing shopping malls along State Road 426 stands in contrast to the shopping frenzy at an Outdoor World. The parking lot is full of late model pickup trucks, SUVs and minivans, and the store is crowded with people preparing for some serious camping, hunting and fishing. Standing in line, it is tempting to ask, “Recession? What recession?”

Retail is a powerful indicator of how we feel about our lives. Reflecting either increased consumer confidence or austerity fatigue, consumer credit card debt rose consecutively in the final four months of 2011, as shoppers reached for their cards in order to get on with their lives -- even if it meant slipping back into old habits.

There is an opening in all of this for government leaders. It’s a long list of to-do’s, including the important business of thinking, planning, engaging and investing in the future of our communities and country. Governments cannot simply muddle through this moment as improving revenue forecasts meet pent-up demand. Instead, they must lead toward a preferred future rather than simply restoring an unsustainable past.

This is a campaign that begins in cities and towns and coalesces in a critical mass at the state level. There is certainly a role for the federal government in all of this -- an important one at that -- but the feds cannot do it by themselves, and they should not be relied upon to lead.

The public expects nothing less. In its longitudinal tracking survey, the polling firm Gallup reports that localities are alone among levels of government in not having lost the public’s trust and confidence to handle problems. Local governments have scored consistently well since 1997, keeping two-thirds of the public approval during two severe recessions. In the intervening years, trust in state government took substantial hits during those recessions. Even as state ratings improve during the still nascent recovery, their overall approval has dropped 16 percent since 1997. In contrast, trust levels in the federal government have been in steady decline since 2005, with Congress’ approval ratings languishing at an all-time low in the teens.

There is new data to suggest that public officials get the point, and have internalized it. A poll by our readers panel, Governing Exchange, found that 84 percent of Governing’s readers are now somewhat or very optimistic about their ability to make a meaningful contribution through public service, and the responses suggest that now is the time to do it. (Poll results were based on a survey of 312 readers.)

Almost two-thirds of the survey respondents (62 percent) report being somewhat or very optimistic about their jurisdiction’s fiscal condition in 2012 and nearly half (45 percent) expect little or no net change as a result of legislative elections this fall. These results suggest that people on the ground are sensing a change in both direction and momentum after a very dark five-year period.

None of this suggests that our communities will magically transform into the happiest place on earth, but there is reason for optimism that things have begun to get better.

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