Shadow Governments

Much of the focus now, and for the next few months, is upon the fracas that constitutes our 2016 presidential primaries. It is at the same time funny, farcical and frightening. Not only are we returning to 19th century style mud-wrestling debates, we are also seeing echoes of the political rallies of the 1930s that looked to authoritarian solutions built on stereotyping, fear and hatred.

Fortunately, not all eyes are turned only toward the political. One of our nation’s most insightful investigators (who hails from Great Britain) hosts a weekly show on HBO, “Last Week Tonite with John Oliver.” Being on HBO, his reports and commentaries are sprinkled with vulgarities, but his show does more creative and intriguing segments on our nation than anyone else at this time. Recent topics have included Donald Trump, abortion and Voter ID laws.

On his March 6 show, Oliver took on one of the least discussed areas of American government, the so-called shadow or ghost governments of Special Districts, or what the British call QUANGOs, quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations. The segment can be viewed here.

I conduct research upon and teach a special topics graduate course on this subject. Created by government, but not a part of them, special districts, governmental corporations, commissions or public authorities look and act like a part of our local government but operate with little to no oversight. There has been little research on them and we have very little hard data about these entities. The public and our elected officials are barely aware of them and yet, there are more of them (some 40,000 plus such entities) than municipalities and counties combined. They collect and spend as much or more money than all our actual local governments to the tune of some $100 billion.

Why do we know so little about them? In part it is because they hide in plain sight. With names like The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, the my town or county business improvement or mosquito abatement or fire or irrigation or you name it district, these entities are often assumed to be a part of our local or even state government. As such, we believe their budget and activities are within our governmental documents under our governmental control.

The truth is, we have no idea how many of these entities there are, where they are, what they do or how they spend our money. Why? Because there are almost no laws requiring them to report their existence, file tax or other statements. Although given many of the same monopoly and other governmental powers, they are not bound by civil service, hiring or pay laws and guidelines. They are not under the management of traditional local or state government                .

There are those in government who like things this way. Special districts can allow those in government to do things off the public books. They allow ‘tax’ dollars to be raised and spent with no public transparency or oversight. By shifting activities from true government to ghost government, the size of government can be reported as shrinking even as we are paying more out of our pockets than ever, all with no knowledge or say so. In New York City, Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast makes $325,000 while New York Governor Cuomo earns $179,000.

For now at least, one of the brightest lights shining on our governmental shadows is an immigrant, from England. How appropriate.

Submitted by Craig Donovan


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