July 1, 2004 - From the August, 2001 issue

Regions Are the Stepchildren Of Fed/State/Local System Federal Executive Order In September May Offer Change

For decades, representatives in Washington D.C. and in state capitols throughout the nation have paid lip-service to the notion of "regions." However, after careful study and deliberation over the past few years, governance is finally beginning to accept the role of "the region" as it relates to infrastructure and the economy. Neal Peirce opines on the evolving role of the region and its new champion in this MIR excerpt.

By: Neal R. Peirce

America's citistate regions were the dynamo behind the multi-trillion

dollar American economic expansion of the 1990s. With 80 percent of the population, the country's combination of urban cores and their suburbs accounted for 84 percent of new jobs, 85 percent of U.S. economic output, 93 percent of employment in such key sectors as high technology.

What's more, reports the U.S. Conference of Mayors in a study by the economic forecasting firm of DRI-WEFA, the urban regions are likely to keep expanding their economic output to almost 87 percent of the U.S. total by 2025.

And while regions have been perennial stepchildren in the U.S. federal-state-local government system, there's now active consideration of ways to include them, and encourage their performance, in an executive order on federalism scheduled for release by the Bush White House later this summer.

Could it be that a new and pragmatic regionalism, flying just under the radar line of Washington-centered political conflict, could flourish in this decade?

The Mayors Conference clearly hopes so. New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, its freshly installed president, is proclaiming an end to the "tin cup" era of besieged inner cities begging for federal aid.

Today's "real" American cities, says Morial, are "not defined by political borders." Rather, metro-wide partnerships with businesses and civic groups, Democratic and Republican mayors playing active roles, are "the very reason why America's economy came back" in the ‘90s.

Using the new DRI-WEFA figures to compare the economic vigor of America's city regions with nations of the world, Morial notes that U.S. metro regions would represent 47 of the world's 100 largest economies. The New York region has a larger economy than all of Australia. Chicago's economy is greater than Russia or Switzerland. Philadelphia and Houston each have output greater than Norway or Poland.

But fully competitive U.S. city regions, argues Morial, will require major investments- rail and other infrastructure, new technologies, affordable housing and anti-poverty efforts, education, arts and culture. Starting in September, Morial and other mayors will tour the country urging greater federal and state metro investments as a key to boosting the overall national economy.

Note the new twist to the mayors' argument. It's economic-matching the post-Cold War world's emphasis on economics instead of military power. And it's regional, reflecting the critical role of 21st century citistates.

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A regional focus is rare in either federal or state policy: presidents, governors and legislators just haven't thought that way.

But who can question the figures: nationally and in the states, metro regions are America's cash cows. They cross-subsidize the less-wealthy rural areas. Their creativity and economic dynamism give the U.S. its competitive global edge. And with the maturing of city-born industries-from autos to computers to Internet publishing-rural areas share in their jobs and wealth gains.

Now, as a White House working group considers elements of a federalism executive order, regionalism is a serious consideration for the first time. The increasingly activist Alliance for Regional Stewardship, headed by Doug Henton of Palo Alto-based Collaborative Economics, recently sent a bipartisan delegation to confer with White House figures including Ruben Barrales, director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Relations, and Kristine Simmons of the Domestic Policy Council.

The essence of the committee's message: Regions are economic engines but also home to many of America's toughest problems, from traffic congestion to boosting lagging neighborhoods. The federal government shouldn't dictate to regions. But it should respond and provide help to "bottoms up" regional compacts-collaborative efforts to solve problems across municipal and county lines.

Clear performance measures should be expected of regions getting federal aid or regulation waivers, it was suggested. Federal workers should be trained to deal more flexibly with regions.

Whether any or all of this makes it into the executive order is unclear. State governments may have competing requests, and Bush, a former governor, may heed them first.

But between the mayors and the regionalists a clear (and sufficiently Republican) idea is emerging: let Washington get out of the way, challenge regions to act for themselves, and then help with investments critical for a 21st century American future.

Bush, from his Austin years, knows how critical technology-a key part of the new regionalism-is to U.S. interests. Barrales, selected to be the White House's intergovernmental officer, had been director of a premier regional body, Joint Venture Silicon Valley. Becky Morgan, former California state senator and Joint Venture chief, and her husband Jim, a prominent Silicon Valley technology CEO, have discussed the issue at senior White House levels.

There's too much dysfunction at the state and city levels, says Becky Morgan, who's also founder and lead funder of the Alliance for Regional Stewardship. She sees a strong need "to encourage cross-sectoral, bipartisan leaders to come together within our regions to renew our geographies of common interest. That's what it's all about."

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.