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A Plot Against the Suburbs? Dismantling the Right's New Conspiracy Theory

The National Review has decided that efforts to improve local governance is ... something bad.

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This article originally appeared on the DC.STREETSBLOG.

It’s presidential election time in Ohio, and boy does Stanley Kurtz at the National Review have a scoop for the good, unsuspecting citizens of the Buckeye State. Northeast Ohio political leaders and President Obama are working on a sinister plot to  redistribute wealth from suburbs and give it to cities!! (Socialism!)

Kurtz has found a bogeyman in the concept of “regionalism,” which has for decades been promoted (and by that I mean talked about more than acted upon) by suburban and urban leaders alike in Northeast Ohio — the most populous region in the state — as a way to improve the region’s economy by reducing government waste. Sounds pretty sinister, right? Well, Kurtz is sounding the alarm for Ohio suburbanites (coincidentally, the mightiest base of political power in the all-important swing state).

“The president and his fellow Democrats are coming for your tax money,” writes Kurtz, a “fellow” with the  Koch brothers-backed “think tank” the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Redistribution is the goal, and suburban Ohio is target No. 1.”

Before I explain how wrong and crazy that is, let’s back up for a second. What is regionalism? Is regionalism socialism? Here is how the concept is generally understood in Northeast Ohio…

The problem, for Cleveland and its suburbs, is that there are 59 distinct municipal governments in Cuyahoga County alone. Each of these government entities manages a police department and a streets program, employs a council clerk, and so forth. That makes government service provision in Northeast Ohio relatively costly and duplicative. In other words, it makes taxes high. That is generally considered to be bad — an obstacle to revitalizing the economy. And fixing the economy is priority number one in Northeast Ohio — home to Cleveland, Youngstown, and other cities likely to appear on Forbes’ annual Most Miserable Cities list.

But to Kurtz, this kind of cooperation between suburbs and the central city is not common sense or good government — it is self-evidently a diabolical plot.Okay, stay with me here. This fragmentation in government also encourages intercity competition for employers. This means that a lot of local governments spend substantial public resources luring businesses to hopscotch from city to city around the region, collecting tax breaks, without adding any jobs or true economic gain. Again, in Northeast Ohio, this is almost universally understood to be a bad thing. Out of 59 government entities, 49 have signed a voluntary “anti-poaching” agreement.

Kurtz has a high-pitched, tone-deaf warning for Cleveland: Watch out, Obama is trying to make you like Portland, or — gasp — Minnesota. In Kurtz’s writing, “Portland” and “Minnesota” are cautionary tales.

Kurtz uses Portland and Minneapolis as bogeymen not just because he holds their values in disdain. He is warning that policies they’ve adopted — urban growth boundaries and tax-sharing agreements — could follow from a few of Cleveland’s rather toothless regional planning efforts.

But Kurtz isn’t interested in discussing whether those tools might actually be beneficial to Ohio residents, whether they live in cities or suburbs. Nope. I mean, if you follow that line of inquiry you would have to arrive at the indisputable fact that both Minneapolis and Portland are far healthier places, economically, than Cleveland, whose absence of land use planning has helped make it an internationally renowned poster child for urban vacancy.

Kurtz doesn’t go there. Just the suggestion that urban growth boundaries or tax-sharing could happen — that is reason enough for suburbanites to hightail it from camp Obama, like, well, suburbanites from Cleveland. At least, that seems to be his suggestion.

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