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Mayors, Markets and Municipal Reform: The Politics of Water Delivery in Mexico


The dissertation examines the political challenges of public utility reform through the analysis of urban water and sanitation services in Mexico. Decentralization of services to municipal governments was coupled with promotion of "market-based" policies in the 1980s and 1990s. However, the unpopularity of these policies provided political obstacles for mayors now charged with reforming the sector because many consumers were not accustomed to paying for water services. These policies--increased water prices, rigorous fee collection practices, and service suspension for non-payment--were political costs felt in the short-term, whereas the benefits of reform were long-term service improvements in water quality and quantity, reduced environmental pollution, and increased economic and social development. This problem of time inconsistency is a challenge even for pro-reform mayors because mayors in Mexico have a narrow window of time within which to enact policy. Mayoral administrations are three years long with no immediate re-election, and bureaucratic administrators follow the electoral cycle, which further exacerbates the challenge of long-term policymaking.

Based on a comparative analysis of nine Mexican municipalities, I argue that mayors whose constituent base is primarily composed of middle and upper income consumers and business are more likely to reform because these groups are more able to pay short-term costs for long-term service improvements than the urban poor. With the support of a pro-reform mayor, reform is likely under two conditions: a) the presence of a water intensive industry and b) institutional support from the state government. Water intensive industry prioritizes improvement in service delivery, calculates costs based on the long run, and, further, has long-term financial and professional ties in the community. Water intensive industry is well positioned to support the policy process over time by participating in the leadership of the water utility board of directors. Also, water intensive industry can help offset the costs of reform because it pays more per cubic meter through a block tariff pricing scheme, a policy that subsidizes domestic consumers and helps to finance the reform agenda. Therefore, water intensive industry can lengthen the political problems of imposing costs in the short-term for mayors, lowering the costs to consumers before the long-term benefits of service improvements appear. Finally, state governments can provide legal, fiscal and technical resources that can help shorten the learning curve of incoming mayoral administrations. As such, state government can shorten the long-term planning of the reform process to make it more consistent with the shorter electoral cycle found at the municipal level.

This research advances debates on policy adoption and implementation, highlighting the importance of political-business coalitional support as well as the role of inter-tier relations in maintaining policies over time.

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