Saeima finally approves major regional reforms

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At a virtual sitting on June 10, the Saeima approved the government's major overhaul of local government and the regional map of Latvia in a third and final reading.

58 deputies voted in favor of the law on administrative territorial reform, 12 were against and 20 deputies abstained.

Under the terms of the hefty legislative package which drew heavy opposition in its earlier readings, after the municipal elections in 2021, there will be 42 local governments instead of the current 119 local governments. Many existing districts will be merged with each other and many urban municipalities will now find their reach extending deep into rural hinterlands.

"The administrative-territorial reform can be compared to a long-running ultramarathon. In total, the Commission has processed more than 800 proposals during more than 120 working hours. This marathon relay awaits other reforms that have been discussed for years and have already begun, such as the reorganization of the networks of hospitals and schools, which will now be able to move much more smoothly,” said Artūrs Toms Plešs, Chairman of the Administrative Territorial Reform Commission. 

Plešs also lauded the fact that important legislation had not been put on hold despite the COVID-19 crisis thanks to the Saeima's rapid introduction of virtual debate and online voting: “On the one hand, we have had to look for new ways to make decisions, we have proved that we can also make important decisions remotely. On the other hand, the crisis has shown that this is the last moment for the reform to be adopted. Strong and powerful municipalities are needed in crisis situations that may affect us in the future.” 

In future Latvia will be divided into so-called "state cities" and local governments. The status of a state city has been determined for Daugavpils, Jelgava, Jēkabpils, Jūrmala, Liepāja, Ogre, Rēzekne, Rīga, Valmiera and Ventspils.    

The full list of new administrative districts is listed in this story from our colleagues at LSM's Latvian-language service.

It is also expected that from July 1 of next year Koknese and Iecava will acquire the status of a city, while Ādaži, Mārupe and Ķekava will become cities from July 1, 2022. 

However, the legislative changes are not completely over: in order to implement the common functions of the state and local governments, it is planned to establish the administrative regions of Kurzeme, Zemgale, Riga, Vidzeme and Latgale on a legal basis. It is planned to determine their status and operating conditions in a separate law, which will have to be developed by the Cabinet of Ministers by January 1, 2021 and submitted to the Saeima for consideration. 

The 2021 municipal elections will be announced by the Central Election Commission and with the first meetings of the newly elected municipal councils are scheduled for July 1 next year. But before that the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development must develop a methodology for local governments to start operating new municipalities by 30 September this year. 

The law provides for a transitional period so that appropriate changes can be made in the state registers and information systems in accordance with the division of the new administrative territories. 

Regional reform was made one of the flagship policies of the current government, and while coalition politicians were in celebratory mood following the decisive Saeima vote, it is whether or not the reforms really do bring improvements that will likely determine future of the government.

Particularly in rural areas, there is a fear that the reforms will lead to job losses in the public sector, increased centralization and dominant towns and cities sucking in resources. However, if the changes do lead to the creation of more efficient networks of education, health care, social assistance, transport and utility infrastructure, plus increased investment -- as promised by government -- then opposition to the reforms will surely subside. 

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