In recent years, as state-level elections empower lawmakers and governors to remove government regulations and promote free markets and entrepreneurism, activists have begun targeting local governments to create big government policy that could not survive at the state capitol. As a result, state lawmakers have found themselves in the precarious position of passing preemption laws to get a handle on intrusive government at the local level.
Proponents of oppressive government push issues ranging from minimum wage increases, plastic bag bans, fracking bans and more in city halls across the country. Interestingly, the same people who preach the need for a higher national minimum wage will cry out for home rule and local control when they can co-opt a city government. A proper understanding of local government and its interaction with the state is needed to bring clarity to this growing problem.
Cities and counties are political subdivisions created by the states; they are not equal to the state. Where the state is silent on a particular issue, local governments typically have the freedom to develop local policies until the state decides to rein them in. The state can rein in these powers by adopting preemption bills, which prevent local governments from passing public policy the state deems detrimental to the state’s business.
Preemption laws provide policy continuity and economic stability for taxpayers and entrepreneurs who count on stable economic climates to conduct business. Imagine being a small business owner in Seattle who is forced to comply with a $15 an hour wage mandate you did not budget for nor expect. Such policy instability by local governments creates economic uncertainty and harms business’ ability to plan for the future.
In California, progressive organizations have overplayed their hand with local initiatives in San Francisco and Huntington Beach. According to the San Francisco Examiner, Several local businesses that have been staples in the community have had to close their doors as the $15 an hour minimum wage has backfired on small businesses. It’s not unusual for a minimum wage increase to cause unintended consequences for businesses and their employees. Decades of empirical research have connected a higher minimum wage to reduced hours and employment. The $15 minimum wage hike was supported by SEIU Local 1021 union and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, both big-government organizations.
Further down the coast in Huntington Beach, the city council in 2013 succumbed to pressure from environmental groups, including the International Seal Beach Surfrider Foundation and Californians Against Waste, to ban plastic bags. In two years’ time, the council voted 6-1 to repeal their plastic bag ban. According to the Orange County Register, Joanie MacLean, manager of Lucci’s market on Adams Avenue, said residents didn’t react well when forced to bring reusable sacks or pay for paper ones after the city council passed the ban in 2013. Lucci’s pays twice as much for paper bags as plastic ones, said owner Rick Refice, and eventually had to charge shoppers to cover the cost.
In recent years, in the mountain-west and south, environmental groups have tried to influence public opinion to enact fracking bans by intimidating local councils or initiating a process to get the issue on the ballot. Cities in Colorado, Kentucky and Texas have been making headlines regarding fracking bans. These bans usually begin with community meetings scheduled by environmental groups where “so-called” experts are brought in to scare the public. Then the local officials are bombarded with letters to the editor and scared citizens showing up at council meetings to apply pressure.
Local governments traditionally focus on infrastructure projects, economic development and public safety, but increasingly they are drawn into partisan pet causes by activists who have seen their influence in statehouses wane. While local decision-making is optimal to ensure local tax dollars benefit communities, city halls should not be held hostage to the fake outrage ginned up by progressive activists who can no longer push their agenda in their state capitol.
Jon Russell is a Town Councilman in Culpeper, Virginia and serves as the Director of the American City County Exchange, an initiative of the American Legislative Exchange Council. Learn more about the American City County Exchange, America’s only non-partisan free market forum for local elected officials, here: http://www.alec.org/acce/.