Decentralization in Spain has been a fast, intense and, on the whole, successful process. We are not a federal country in the strict sense, but we are very close. Tax decentralization at the regional level clearly exceeds that of the federal countries in the European Union; and the percentage of public spending managed by the autonomous communities places us in the top-5 worldwide. Nobody has done so much in such a short time and starting from a highly centralized government structure.
Sure, we can brag; to, the next minute, remember all the issues that remain pending. In particular: the reform of regional financing; the in-depth review of the vertical and horizontal coordination mechanisms, in light of the serious shortcomings revealed by the pandemic; and the solution to the voluminous debt with the Treasury accumulated by some autonomies.
None of the three issues is easy to resolve, for reasons of a different nature. But I am convinced that if we want to do it and prepare for other future challenges, we need prior institutional reform. Ideally, one that involved constitutional changes and that would provide us with the tools of the federal States. For example: a Senate that would function as a true territorial chamber. However, no one is unaware of the difficulty of this reform in the current scenario of political fragmentation. It is not feasible in the short or medium term. Therefore, we must embrace pragmatism and concentrate on the wickers that already exist and whose improvement does not require touching the Constitution.
There are three: the Conference of Presidents, the Fiscal and Financial Policy Council (CPFF) and the sectoral conferences. The first should meet once or twice a year, with previously worked out agendas, and with the aim of reaching far-reaching political agreements that affect regional powers or require their participation. The Conference of Presidents cannot be a space to hold mere briefings. The CPFF must channel all the discussions that affect the autonomous budgets; it must modify its operating regulations and voting rules, so that the central administration can always impose its criteria without negotiating; and it must have a kind of permanent technical secretariat, which meets the demands of the Council with rigor and technical independence.
Finally, the sectoral Conferences must guarantee coordination in the exercise of regional powers and exploit the advantage that decentralization entails as a public policy laboratory. Successful experiences (and those that are not) must be shared so that the management of education, health, social services or R&D improve in Spain as a whole.
Santiago Penas Lake He is Professor of Economics at the University of Vigo and Senior Researcher at Funcas.
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