Panel Paper: The Effect of Special District Government on Environmental Policy Implementation

Saturday, November 10, 2018
Taylor - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

David Switzer, University of Missouri

Special districts are the local government unit responsible for service delivery for large portions of the United States. There are currently over 38,000 special districts in the United States, but despite their prevalence as a form of local government, they remain understudied. Special districts are especially important for environmental policy, since a large number of special districts in the United States are responsible for delivering water and wastewater services to citizens. Local governments play an integral role in the implementation of federal environmental policy as regulated entities, and yet the effect of local government specialization on environmental compliance has not been examined. The goal of this paper is to understand the differences between special districts and municipal governments in the implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

Separate from the work on special districts, a large literature in urban politics has addressed the responsiveness of municipal governments to citizen preferences. Until recently, most of the work on local government suggested that, due to political constraints and the competitive nature of local government service provision, local governments should be relatively unresponsive to the ideology and political preferences of citizens. Despite this, recent work has investigated the possibility that municipal governments are indeed responsive to the preferences of citizens. This is the case with environmental policy implementation, as municipal compliance with federal policy is higher in municipalities with higher levels of democratic vote share.

That municipal environmental protection is in part determined by the political preferences of citizens is crucial to the debate over government specialization, which largely revolves around the relative responsiveness of general purpose and specialized governments. Supporters of specialization suggest that in addition to being more focused and efficient in service provision, special districts should be more responsive to the citizens they serve. Critics of specialization suggest the opposite, arguing that due to overlapping government boundaries and the relatively quiet nature of special district politics, they will actually be less responsive to citizens and more responsive to business interests. It has been shown that municipal governments are responsive to citizens, and that this impacts the level of local environmental compliance. If special districts are more or less responsive than municipal governments then specialization will matter for implementation.

This paper explores this possibility. Building on Mullin’s theory of the conditional effect of specialization, I argue that while specialization will generally lead to higher levels of compliance with environmental legislation, this will depend on the level of citizen engagement. I argue that when citizens are more liberal, and therefore environmentally oriented, the effect of specialization will be lessened, since municipal governments will be incentivized to respond to the desire for greater environmental protection.

In order to test the differences between special districts and municipalities with respect to environmental protection, I analyze Texas and California local government utilities’ compliance with the SDWA. Using GIS, I match special districts and municipalities to voting returns from recent presidential elections, testing the interaction between democratic vote share and specialization on environmental protection.

Full Paper: