States and local governments were faced with long lines and long wait times for some voters in Election 2012. What causes election problems? How does government get to the point where elections get off the front pages and return to stable events? The solutions are not simply limited to election administration. Smooth elections are a combination of policy, usually mandated at the state level by legislation or by regulation, resources allocated to the elections process, political considerations, and then administration of the process at the local level. What can states do to assure the best possible service to voters? What is the proper mix of policy, politics, practices and procedures?
Voters decided 186 ballot propositions in 39 states in 2012, approving 63 percent of them. The electorate swung to the left on some issues, with potential breakthrough victories for advocates of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington, and same-sex marriage in Maine, Maryland and Washington. Other high-profile issues included taxes, the death penalty and illegal immigration.
The State Budget Crisis Task Force, established by Richard Ravitch and Paul Volcker, examined major threats to state fiscal sustainability, including federal deficit reduction, underfunded retirement promises, rapid Medicaid growth, and narrow and eroding tax bases. It recommended better federal-state communication, improved state budgeting and reporting practices, and broader state tax bases.
States experienced their second consecutive year of positive but slow growth in the 2012 fiscal year. Both revenue collections and spending from state funds increased, although at growth levels below the previous year. Additionally, the number of states making mid-year budget cuts continued to decline in 2012 and states have begun to replenish their rainy day funds and reserves. In the 2013 fiscal year, states are expected to continue their improvement, with both state revenues and state spending projected to grow. Revenue growth since the recession, however, remains weak by historical standards and general fund spending is expected to remain below peak levels. States are expected to face tight fiscal conditions for a number of years to come due to federal uncertainty, the slow pace of economic growth and increased spending demands.
State-federal relations continue to be buffeted by the increasing polarization between political parties that often accentuates intergovernmental conflict. The hoary antebellum doctrine of nullification also has risen from the dead to point to a future of more state-federal conflict as states controlled by one party, whether Democratic or Republican, enact policies contravening federal laws and judicial rulings. Nevertheless, coercive federalism continues its now 45-year-old onward march as federal power penetrates deeper into state and local authority.
California enacted sweeping public pension reforms in 2012. Despite competing claims that extensive reform either wasn’t warranted or didn’t go far enough, California’s pension legislation will provide immediate savings and reduce unfunded liabilities over the long term.1
Local governments in the United States are the most important providers of services to their respective residents and also are major regulators of business firms and individuals. The U.S. is home to 89,476 local governments: 3,033 counties, 19,492 municipalities, 16,519 towns and townships, 37,381 special districts and 13,051 independent school districts. Powers exercisable by individual local governments vary considerably and are determined by the state constitution, state statutes, state administrative regulations and court decisions.