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Giving more power to local governments is one of the Democratic Party of Japan’s main election promises. The Hatoyama administration and local governments on Feb. 18 agreed on a draft of a bill giving legal backing to a planned policy forum in which concerned Cabinet ministers and local government leaders will discuss relevant policy measures. The central government will immediately start writing a bill based on the draft. It hopes to submit the bill to the Diet in March and to inaugurate the forum in April to better reflect views of local governments in policy measures.

It will be significant that leaders of local governments can express their opinions to the central government on policy measures that affect prefectures and municipalities at the planning stage in a forum that has legally defined functions.

It is also significant that the new forum, even if it is intended to increase the power of local governments, will not be imposed by the central government on local governments. Representatives from the central and local governments discussed the shape and functions of the planned forum from the first and jointly wrote the draft.

The draft says that the forum’s purpose is to give more power to local governments in administrative matters and to ensure effective and efficient execution of policy measures. Members of the forum will be Cabinet ministers concerned, such as the chief Cabinet secretary, the internal affairs minister and the finance minister, and leaders of six local government-related organizations, which include prefectural governors, municipal mayors and local assembly chairs.

They will discuss central government policy measures closely related to local government, such as measures for dividing administrative roles between the central and local governments, matters linked to local taxation and finance, education and social security measures that involve the work of local governments.

To discuss particular topics, committees may be set up inside the forum. A likely topic to be discussed in committee is how to fund the universal child allowance. Local governments want the central government to shoulder all costs of the allowance in fiscal 2011.

The forum will hold sessions regularly and its chair must submit a report on the discussions to the Diet. Forum members will have to respect the results of the discussions.

The central government at first thought that there was no need for the prime minister to become a member of the forum. But local government representatives demanded that the expansion of local governments’ power be carried out under the leadership of the prime minister. The central government made a concession. Under the draft, the prime minister can attend meetings of the forum and express his opinions at any time although he is not a member of the forum.

Originally the draft said the chief Cabinet secretary will serve as chair of the forum. The local government representatives demanded that the prime minister serve as chair. This is because they thought that, if the forum is to fully reflect local governments’ views in policy matters, the prime minister’s full participation is necessary to overcome resistance from the central government’s ministries and agencies.

The draft now says that a Cabinet minister who is a forum member and designated by the prime minister will serve as chair. Members of the forum will also be able to ask the prime minister to hold an extraordinary meeting and have the prime minister attend it.

The local government representatives’ demands were based on local government leaders’ bitter experience with the Koizumi administration. Although they were invited to consultations with the central government, the consultations were used as an alibi for reducing grants in aid from tax money to local governments and weakening their call for reducing subsidies from the central government with strings attached.

The central government rejected the local government representatives’ demand that when local government leaders are dissatisfied with the outcome of discussions in the forum they be entitled to take their grievance to a third-party organization. Even so, that they will be legally empowered to discuss policy matters with Cabinet members concerned at the planning stage is a great step forward to expansion and strengthening of local autonomy.

In the past, the central government’s ministries and agencies often made unilateral decisions on policy measures that would increase the financial burden of local governments or complicate their administrative duties. The forum will not only prevent this from happening but also increase transparency in policy formation. Members of the forum should realize how great their responsibility is when expressing their views.

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