Tension between Idaho’s biggest city and its state government is nothing new. Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter and Boise Mayor David H. Bieter haven’t minced words in voicing their dissatisfaction with state-city relationships. In April 2013, Otter, (himself a resident of Ada County), referred to the state’s largest metropolitan area as “The Great State of Ada” while signing a controversial law enacting strict restrictions on ballot measures. 

In his 2013 State of the City address Bieter fired back at Otter, criticizing the Governor and state lawmakers for the Gem State’s economy and wages and joking that Boiseans ought to take the Governor’s advice and formally secede. He then struck a more serious chord in airing his dissatisfaction with the state’s policymaking.

“We’re on our own,” said Bieter. “We have to build our own economy.”

The Idaho State Capitol building, located in Boise, ID.

Flickr / Tom Kelly
The Idaho State Capitol building, located in Boise, ID.

This tension is nothing new in Idaho or elsewhere. In the United States, cities are commonly believed to exert an inordinate amount of influence over state legislatures, driving the policymaking process to further urban interests. Mayors of America’s largest cities, however, claim just the opposite, namely that lawmakers from rural and often less affluent areas seek to directly stymie efforts to jumpstart growth in urban areas. Both sides have pointed to anecdotal examples to make their case.

But a new study, published in the November 2013 issue of American Political Science Review, sheds light on the role cities play in state politics. “No Strength in Numbers: The Failure of Big-City  Bills in American State Legislatures, 1880-2000,”  [paywalled link] authored by Gerald Gamm, associate professor of political science and history at University of Rochester and Thad Kousser, associate professor of political science at University of California, San Diego, examines legislation from 13 states over 120 years and suggests state lawmakers representing urban areas face an uphill battle in the legislative process. 

From the article’s introduction:

“If size has its advantages, that news has not traveled to New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. For more than a century’s time, leaders of the nation’s great cities have rarely celebrated their ability to secure necessary legislation in their state capitals, even though they have often sent very large delegations to those capitals. On the contrary, the great narrative in urban politics has been a story of unremitting hostility: despite the great number of legislative seats held by big cities, the rural hinterland has routinely risen up and frustrated urban initiatives and interfered with urban governance (Baker 1960; Banfield and Wilson 1963; Beard 1912; Desmond 1955; Weir 1996; Wells 1939; Wiebe 1967). We seek to unravel the paradox that, in the affairs of big cities and American states, there is no strength in numbers.”

Gamm and Kousser assembled their data from a collection of 1,700 bills introduced in the statehouses of Alabama, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New York, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Washington. Each bill in the database is characterized as a “district bill,” according to the authors, i.e., a bill which affects a specific place and is introduced by someone from that place. Big-city bills are defined as those introduced by legislators representing cities with more than 100,000 people.

Gamm and Kousser chart

Gamm and Kousser
Chart from Gamm and Kousser shows effect of delegation size on bill passage. (Click to embiggen.)

Charting the failure rates of bills introduced by both urban and rural legislators, Gamm and Kousser found a “large, stable gap in passage rates between big-city bills and bills from smaller places.” A greater number of delegates from major urban areas should, one might assume, significantly impact the legislative process. But research suggests, according to Gamm and Kousser, that “big-city bills fare much worse in state legislatures than bills from other cities and towns across the state.”In response, Aaron M. Renn at Urbanophile suggests that, “local leaders need to invest significant effort into building delegational unity behind major legislative initiatives prior to trying to get anything passed.”

“Year after year, while most bills affecting smaller districts pass, most big-city bills fail,” according to the study.

In Ada County, voters send 27 lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, to the Idaho statehouse. Canyon County is also part of the Boise metro area and the Treasure Valley, and sends an additional 12 lawmakers. These 39 lawmakers represent a diverse group of people crossing traditional city boundaries, which may further complicate any one city’s attempts to pass legislation at the state level. Lawmakers representing voters within Boise City limits make up only a fraction of that number.

Gamm and Kousser’s study doesn’t reference Idaho explicitly, but their data suggests big-city bills in Idaho fair no better or worse than bills introduced by lawmakers in Chicago, Los Angeles or New York.

Pop urbanist Richard Florida at The Atlantic Cities suggests cross-jurisdictional alliances: “For urban mayors like Bill de Blasio and Rahm Emanuel, it turns out that keeping center-city legislators in line may be just as important as having allies in Albany or Springfield.”The authors propose numerous explanations for the failure of big-city bills — from racial issues to metropolitan growth concerns to partisan differences — but also note a key factor influencing why cities face legislative gridlock at the state level. As delegations grow, Gamm and Kousser suggest, big-city bills become more difficult to pass not because of inter-district animosity or malapportionment during the redistricting process, issues which may play a factor in some states, but because of the difficulty of building consensus among large, diverse groups.

“It is not partisanship or rural hostility that explains the high failure rate of big-city bills; neither of these variables has explanatory power. Rather, it is the cities with the largest legislative delegations that face the greatest hurdles to passing their bills. Size proves a hindrance, we demonstrate, because a large delegation is more likely to be internally divided than a smaller delegation, muddling cues for others in the chamber. At least in the realm of district legislation, ending malapportionment and increasing delegation sizes appear to have harmed rather than helped the interests of big cities.”

Gamm and Kousser’s findings, they suggest, indicate for the first time that lawmakers from the country’s urban areas routinely fail to mount hurdles faced at the state level, in a way that is both measurable and systematic. “There is no strength in numbers,” the authors conclude.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.

  • Roy-in-Boise

    The good ‘ole boys in the Statehouse exist in an imagined laissez faire world inspired by their favorite fantasy writer, Ayn Rand.