A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Monday unveiled a six-year plan requiring Iowa's 99 counties and 950 cities to consolidate government services - with a penalty for those that don't go along.
"We want to make sure people know we're serious," said Rep. Geri Huser, D-Altoona, one of the authors of the proposal. She said restructuring local government will be the first step toward lowering property taxes, which should boost economic development.
The plan would separate Iowa into regions based on the state's 15 community college districts. Community college presidents would hold meetings next year at which local officials would design a regional governing structure. Regions that succeed could design revenue structures as well.
In the third year, the proposed government structures would be submitted to the state for review, and then there's a two-year window for local voters to approve.
For regions that don't come up with a plan, 2011 is the deadline _ and property taxes in those regions would be frozen.
Once local restructuring plans are approved, the state will offer some kind of financial incentives, said Sen. Jeff Angelo, R-Creston.
"We will back those partnerships with money," he said.
For example, many local prosecutors are part-time, but a regional prosecutor might merit a boost in funding from the attorney general's office, he said.
Some also have suggested regional jails, with the state paying for construction and local governments covering the cost of running them.
Many counties and cities battered by tough economic times in recent years have looked at sharing everything from police forces to government buildings, but the notion of consolidating duplicate services in areas with shrinking populations has been around for years.
Among the 50 states, Iowa is ranked 30th in population and 23rd in land area. But it has more counties than all but seven other states.
The consolidation effort will start this year with education.
Gov. Tom Vilsack, who served as mayor of Mount Pleasant before becoming governor, said local officials understand the need to restructure the way services are being offered now.
"This is a process that ought to excite people at the local level," Vilsack said. "I want you to know that I will be very supportive of this."
Key to the effort is allowing local voters to have a say in the new structure, Angelo said.
"It's really up to the taxpayers as to how that system would work," he said.
Huser and Angelo said they would polish details of the plan by next week, and Vilsack said they must act quickly with less than two months before the end of the legislative session.
"This is a very critical time for our state," said Vilsack. "People will look to you for guidance and direction."
He said it's critical that the state step in to push local governments toward sharing.
"We've got to embrace a bit of risk here," Vilsack said.