Having It Both Ways with Government “Plans”

Gary Morse’s Engaged Citizen essay, this morning, raises one of the trickier aspects of government by The Plan.  Some might call it a scheme.

The combined effect of an unsigned editorial and an op-ed from Wednesday’s Providence Journal brings to the fore the implicit contradiction.  From the editorial:

Although the draft planning document, dated September, is merely advisory and does not carry the force of law, some conservative groups are deeply concerned that it seems to ignore property rights and might override local planning.

And from an op-ed by Kenneth Payne and Timmons Roberts on the facing page:

Planning is a way to marshal state efforts to have desired outcomes. Without a state economic plan, businesses are left without indications of the directions of government action, placing them at a disadvantage in the global and national marketplace, where other governments are fostering the sectors of their own firms.

The planners try to have it both ways.  How can a plan “marshal state efforts” and give businesses predictable notice of government “directions” if citizens and elected officials at the local and state levels are free to see the plan as a set of mere suggestions?  Is airy advice about planning going to overcome the political and economic incentives that lead to unmarshalled state efforts and arbitrary zoning and regulatory regimes in the first place?  I don’t think so.

Look to the seemingly benign phrases in the state statute establishing the statewide planning program:

All strategic planning…, undertaken by all departments and agencies of the executive branch unless specifically exempted, shall be conducted by or under the supervision of the statewide planning program. …

The state guide plan shall be a means for centralizing, integrating, and monitoring long-range goals, policies, plans, and implementation activities related thereto. State agencies concerned with specific subject areas, local governments, and the public shall participate in the state guide planning process, which shall be closely coordinated with the budgeting process.

What does the planning program’s “supervision” entail, and what does it mean to “coordinate” the planning process with the budgeting process?  It seems likely that the “supervision” is, as Gary describes, a process of review and approval of all decisions, as well as potential litigation.  With regard to the “coordination,” look to a 2013 bill in the RI House and Senate (H5633 and S0696).

That legislation would have used state grants and matching funds to pressure cities and towns to create “community preservation committees,” which would research and implement land purchase and development deals in keeping with ideals of “sustainable development.” Cities and towns would be able to impose up to an additional 3% tax (“surcharge”) on local property that would not be counted in any calculations or limits on the tax levy, with the state providing matching funds up to 100% of the additional surcharge.

At the end of a November 12 presentation on “Growth Centers,” the speaker described “preference or priority mechanisms,” or “incentives” to get communities on board with The Plan.  These bullet points are from his accompanying slide:

  • Funding preference (where programs allow)
  • Tax tools (e.g., removing the levy cap)
  • Applicability of Revolving Loan funds or other grants
  • Priority-level permitting

These are carrots to draw communities into conformance with the top-down plan — reasons for communities to give “preference or priority” to The Plan that they’re handed.  Sure, votes are often required for all of these schemes at the local and state levels, but that’s all part of The Plan.  The following bullet points come from State Planning’s 2012 three-year work plan:

  • Develop local leaders who understand planning processes and can make more sustainable and equitable decisions.
  • Expand the tools, strategies and networks available to decision-makers through use of social media and other strategies to engage a diversity of stakeholders and incorporate their interests into decisions.
  • Increase understanding of issues and opportunities facing the region.

That sounds innocuous enough on its face, but take some time to consider what it might mean for the state planners to “develop local leaders” and ask yourself what the people who consider themselves expert planners might mean when they suggest “increas[ing] the understanding” of citizens.

To make the concept a bit more explicit, here’s the “Growth Centers” speaker at the November 12 meeting (emphasis added):

[In the report,] there’s a discussion of barriers.  Those include physical barriers in terms of how these areas may or may not be developed; economic in terms of market demand and other conditions; regulatory, does the zoning or the state regulations allow for this type of development; and then social issues, whether folks in their community are actually open to this kind of idea, whether they’re welcoming to the idea of growth centers, or does there need to be some education on that level.

Put more directly, the planners see people who oppose The Plan in their communities as a barrier that requires not adjustment of the plan to the local culture, but education.  Some might call it “reeducation.”

This sort of talk would be perfectly fine if RhodeMap RI were some private interest group or corporate marketing body, but it’s not.  It’s a government agency acting on governmental authority and with government taxpayer dollars.

Where this reeducation fails and communities still resist The Plan, the reassurances that Payne and Roberts offer in their op-ed are nothing but a Gruberian sleight of hand.

In some communities the mandates of The Plan might conflict with local zoning rules, state laws, or even constitutions, and the planners may fail to “develop local leaders” who successfully change the rules and laws.  Where that happens, and opposition remains, the onus will fall on concerned residents to push back against higher levels of government in order to enforce existing rules and laws, and those governments have all the advantages of shifting the venue for action.

Where a state regulatory agency has authority to force a community to do something, that’s where approval or disapproval of the people’s push-back will be decided.  Where a courtroom might be more conducive to victory for The Plan, that’s where the case will go.  If state law is more desirable for the government planners, that’s where the case will be decided; if federal law will do the trick, the issue will be passed on up.

In all of this, it will be private citizens, acting on their own time, with whatever resources they’re able to collect, against the limitless resources that government is able to confiscate as taxes and fees or simply to create, at the federal level.

To answer the Providence Journal editorial, that is ultimately the mechanism that allows a “merely advisory” plan to “carry the force of law.” The burden is flipped so that decisions aren’t being made by competing factions using social and political processes to persuade their neighbors, but rather, individual citizens must organize to prove to governments at every level why they won’t, can’t, and do not have to follow The Plan.


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