I can understand why the various cities and counties are doing their utmost to achieve special-municipality status. I also see the logic behind President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) plan to reduce the north-south divide and stimulate development in central Taiwan. It is necessary, however, to contemplate the harmful influence that the deeply entrenched system of special municipalities has had on grassroots development -- it is also necessary to consider how to dispel the myths about special municipalities. Only when we do so will local government in Taiwan develop in a healthy manner.
Firstly, Taiwan has overlapping and redundant layers of government administration. This leads to a serious waste of national resources. Chronic administrative inefficiency has long been a target of public criticism. Moreover, the two special municipalities of Taipei and Kaohsiung already receive nearly half of all subsidies and resources allotted by the central government, limiting the scope for development enjoyed by the other cities and counties in direct proportion. Especially as the rural-urban divide has grown in Taiwan's post-industrial society, a "cluster effect" in the cities has increasingly resulted in the weak getting weaker and the poor poorer.
At the same time, the original purpose of the long and difficult battle to downsize the provincial government was precisely to make Taiwan's governmental structure less hierarchical by turning cities and counties into special municipalities, giving them the autonomy and the resources to solve their own problems. Since the downsizing, city and county governments have formed the basic units of local administration. This was the original objective of local autonomy as part of a return to constitutional government. If resources continue to be monopolized by the special municipalities, then government reforms aimed at realizing local autonomy will be carried out in vain.
Although local government in Taiwan has long enjoyed a degree of autonomy, it has always relied on handouts from the central or provincial government for its revenue. Under this system, any local subsidies must be itemized in accordance with the stipulations of the Law Governing the Allocation of Government Revenues and Expenditures (財政收支劃分法).
In responding to demands from the local level, the central government has appeared increasingly at a loss and had no alternative but to go along with the streamlining of the provincial government and earmarking a portion of tax revenues -- such as revenue from the business tax -- for local use. But the various cities and counties have continued to plead poverty in the hope of receiving aid from central government. The various city mayors and county heads have each demonstrated their abilities to use their connections in central government to make direct appeals for funds. The special municipalities, by contrast, clearly suffer no such lack of funds.
In recent years, every time the dispute over how to allocate the central government's Tax Redistribution Fund (統籌分配款) has arisen, Taipei and Kaohsiung have each fought for their share with an extremely domineering attitude. This is because Taipei and Kaohsiung have legal safeguards entitling them to a larger share of the fund as special municipalities.
Re-evaluating the current system of local administration does not mean placing all cities, counties, and special municipalities uniformly on the same level. Rather, it means considering each city and county in a functionally equitable position in order to put an end to the Tax Redistribution Fund's current unfair practice of distinguishing between special municipalities and ordinary municipalities.
Under the premise that local development should be balanced, therefore, what we really need to consider are how Taiwan's administrative districts are delineated and how to allocate government revenues in a reasonable manner. There is no way this goal can be achieved by favoring the special municipalities or simply raising the status of particular cities or counties.
If the uneven development between rural and urban areas persists, or if even such relatively trivial items as water conservancy budgets are seen as matters for political wrangling between local and central government, more special municipalities will do nothing either to address current problems in local government or to promote Taiwan's overall development.
Wang Tuoh is a DPP legislator.
Translated by Ethan Harkness
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