The man at the podium was Martin Schwanke, the mayor of Pelican township, S.D. (population 460); but you'd get a better idea of the tenor of his comments by looking at the men around him: Mayor Edward Koch of New York City (pop. 7,071,000), Mayor Raymond Flynn of Boston (pop. 562,000), and Executive Peter Shapiro of Essex County, N.J. (pop. 851,000).
These officials who deliver government services to hundreds of thousands of people, as they look ahead to calendar year 1986, seem to be singing similar tunes. The doers are state and local government. The wreckers are the feds. The good guys are those who balance their budgets. The bad guys are those who have to resort to the likes of Gramm-Rudman to get anywhere close to doing so. The good guys are those who provide services. The bad guys are those who, thanks to Gramm- Rudman, seem about to force themselves to cut categorical grants and mass transit subsidies and revenue sharing. Mayor Koch says New York is a victim of "Rambonomics." Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm decries "the continuing inability of Washington to deal with the deficit."
The local officials see Gramm-Rudman as a runaway locomotive run off the tracks, threatening mindless destruction anywhere in its path. Many, perhaps most, state and local governments have made genuinely difficult decisions over the last 10 years: they have cut popular programs, increased taxes even during recessions, slashed services almost everyone agreed were needed. Now many are getting their reward. New York City's near-bankruptcy is a dim memory; Michigan is out of debt; governors and mayors who came up for reelection in 1984 and 1985 in most cases won by resounding margins. Governors, mayors and county executives have some reason to think that Congress and the president have made a muddle of things and in a way that threatens some of their own hard-won achievements.
There is an element of self-pleading here as well. The justification for revenue sharing, for example, has become flimsy: why should a deficit-ridden federal government send cash to cities and counties that have balanced budgets? But it's worth remembering that once upon a time -- say, 20 years ago -- things looked quite different. Then it was the federal government that seemed competent and caring and bulging with the money needed to cure society's ills. Then it was the states and cities that seemed threadbare both of ideas and of cash. Now the situation is not exactly reversed -- the federal government is not in as much disarray as Mr. Koch and Mr. Lamm say; the deficit exists less because the mechanism is broken than because no one has the will to do what needs to be done. But if not reversed, the situation has changed. The state and local governments over two decades became increasingly well managed and are increasingly a locus of creativity and energy in government. Discount some of the carping, and it's still true: state and local government, from New York to Colorado to Pelican township, is working a lot better than it used to.