Local Empowerment Should Be About Local Matters
I’ve generally been someone who wants to see local governments have more power and flexibility to meet local needs. My rationale is simple. States are full of diverse communities that are a bad fit for one size fits all policies. Chicago, Danville, Peoria, Cairo, etc. are radically different places. They have different circumstances, needs, and local priorities. Hence it makes sense for them to have the ability to chart their own course to some degree. Some states have accommodated this to some extent through classes of cities with different powers based on size. Others give even more flexibility through home rule or individualized city charters.
A good example of responding to local needs was Austin’s regulation of Uber. They were responding to specific local complaints about sexual assault by Uber drivers. And they put in place regulatory requirements including fingerprint background checks directly targeted at this problem.
Similarly Oklahoma City used its sales tax powers to put forth a series of referendums to approve temporary tax hikes to fund capital improvements like parks, sidewalks, and school renovations. (This was their Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) initiative).
Today though we are seeing cities abuse their local authority. Rather than using them for bona fide local matters, they are deploying them to politically grandstand and/or affect federal or state policy.
For example, we hear about cities and mayors being the locus of the “Resistance” to Trump. We also see explicit strategies like the “Fight for $15” minimum wage effort that is attempting to create a new national minimum wage through bottoms up change at the local level. Note at the $15/hr minimum wage has little to do with local economic conditions, but is the target in all kinds of places. It may well be that people can’t get the full $15/hr through, but it’s being promoted as the new base.
Regardless of the merits or lack thereof of any of these items, when cities explicitly state their desire to, for example, subvert US foreign policy, this weakens the case against state preemption laws and for local empowerment generally. When local leaders get outside the areas where they are clearly chartered to do business (infrastructure, education, sanitation, etc) and get into areas traditionally more heavy on state or federal rulemaking and not nearly so obvious a local function (economic regulation, climate policy, etc), don’t be surprised when the other levels of government who see themselves running the show in those matters swoop in and drop the hammer.
Obviously, this won’t necessarily protect you. Austin was not trying to tell the state or national government or any other city how to regulate Uber. The Texas legislature, wrongly in my view, override their ordinance anyway. But it’s still not a good idea to gratuitously invite trouble.
Mayors do not in fact rule the world. In the US, municipalities are structurally weak entities in most cases. We can debate all day long whether things should be different, but at this point that’s reality. To earn the right to go to legislatures to get more authority, or even to just keep the authority that they have, cities should be good stewards of that authority and use it for matters and reasons they make very clear are local, not national or state in scope.
This piece originally appeared in NewGeography