Merilin Piipuu: Will new Riigikogu see local governments as part of state?
Local governments are treated as if they were outside the state, Merilin Piipuu, undersecretary for cultural heritage at the Ministry of Culture, writes.
On the way home from Midsummer celebrations, many of us sighed about how we'd like to live in the countryside. The braver ones go and raise goats or do remote IT work with a view of an ancient valley. And yet nearly half of school children today live in Harju County.
Tallinn and surrounding districts' schools are overloaded. The number of village names in the Song Festival procession is dwindling. Is this an unavoidable consequence of a welfare state, or can we do something about it?
When I began working at the Ministry of Culture a little more than four years ago, I noticed how officials and politicians used the term "state" to refer to only ministries: state development plans, state cultural workers, state museums, and state schools. Local governments, in this way of speaking — or, worse, in this way of thinking — are like something outside the state. Something distant and left on its own.
State support plans for local authorities signal to them that they need to be helped, supported, trained and educated. Every grant or grantee receives a legal mandate, a regulation, an explanatory memorandum, application documents, quotations, signatures, reports and audits. Of course, none of this is possible unless you, as a good local government official, have found the money labels assigned to you on the websites of the ministries and their subdivisions or in the state gazette (Riigi Teataja).
I should add that I have created several grants for local governments with the same set of instructions. These subsidies are not irrelevant. They nudge local authorities towards the planned innovation or change; they are necessary. However, unfortunately, many of these subsidies assist local governments with carrying out their core tasks. So we are dealing with the consequences, not the causes.
When we add to it the European Union subsidy requirements, which has largely been utilized by local governments for their development needs in recent years (and will soon run out! ) we could estimate how many hours a local government official spends on bureaucracy alone, which means a lot of administrative capacity.
I find myself asking, are our remote cities and municipalities so weak today because they lack administrative capacity or are they weak because we have underfunded them?
We joked at the ministry of culture's department of cultural heritage about whether we would be needed at all, if Estonia had strong local governments. Culture has always been important to people and communities. In this regard, however, we have little in common to talk about with our Nordic colleagues because their ministries do not deal with such issues; their local governments do.
Yes, Estonia is a small country, and it makes sense for us to do things centrally and our local governments would probably be much more efficient if there were even fewer of them. But would there be trust? It is fair to say that the "state" does not trust its cities and municipalities. At least, that is how I would feel as a local government official, juggling various wallets with different labels — why can't I be trusted to decide what's best for my town or municipality?
At the same time, one of the basic principles of liberal democracy is a balance of powers, a strong local government that is close to the people. Inevitably, the ability to decide on one's own purse is also a definition of strength. But a strong state is not born by itself, it is a choice.
I thought for a long time that we would not be able to raise the tax base of local governments because the national power parties and the capital city were at odds. But the time of Savisaar and Ansip is over. Do we now have courage to question again what kind of state we really want?
Do we choose a city-state, discussed by President Alar Karis in his anniversary speech, or Estonia with all of its peripheries included? Norway is a successful example of a regional policy that values every village. And it is not just a question of wealth, but of strategic choices. Again, as a little e-country, we can be ingenious, for instance by developing a tax structure that allows a successful start-up entrepreneur to retain a portion of his taxes in the municipality where his summer house is located and whose roads and services he uses.
"Why is the issue of the local government revenue base not reflected in the party manifestos," I asked a politician I know personally. "It is not an issue voters would understand, it is not an issue that speaks to them," he said. In a way, he is right; however, voters do not have to understand where the money comes from, what matters to them is accessibility, simplicity and convenience. It is the duty of political parties to think not just for one election cycle, but for the next 50 and 100 years.
If the "local government income base" does not attract voters, then politicians should discussing "stronger local government," which is built not only by combining smaller governments into larger ones, but also by providing them with more trust and resources.
There is no purpose in maintaining village libraries or schools if no one lives there anymore and there will be no population increase if there are no shops, schools, no folk-dance centers or robotics clubs.
President Alar Karis also stated that the administration of local governments will be one of the most important topics for the incoming parliament and government to tackle. Does the new parliament recognize local governments as being also a state? Who will take the lead in the debate? We know that what is not in the coalition agreement does not exist. Looking forward!
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Editor: Kaspar Viilup, Kristina Kersa