Thursday, June 29, 2006 | With the maturation of local governments across the country in 1800s came growing pains and, soon there after, reforms.
The civil service was installed to eliminate the graft and cronyism that ran rampant and ensured competency within the ranks of a public agency. The doors to legislative meetings were swung open so that the public could monitor how its elected leaders performed and their tax dollars were spent.
Another provision combating Tammany-style politics began gaining steam around the same time – the debt limit.
The state constitution forbids cities, counties and other public entities to spend more money than they make in one year – unless two-thirds of the voters in that locality approve that overflowing cost. The populist provision, touted as a protection for taxpayers, has been used sporadically to challenge big public works projects such as railroads, harbor dredges and sewer systems.
“Municipalities and state governments did deals that got them deeply into debt,” said Steven Frates, a senior fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College. “There were all sorts of hanky-panky going on, so the idea was to clean it up.”
Since the late 19th century, cities such as San Francisco, Long Beach and Santa Cruz have been sued for incurring more debt than they can handle in a year without a vote of the people. However, lawyers and public finance experts say governments are rarely challenged on the law because loopholes are abundant.