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Hidden Power Grab Stops Communities From Deciding Their Own Futures

Increasingly states are quashing the power of local governments--and thwarting innovation.

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In his 1996 State of the Union Address Democratic President Bill Clinton famously declared, “the era of big government is over.” And during his tenure he did everything he could to make that true—deregulating the telecommunications and the financial industries; enacting a free trade agreement severely restricting the authority of the federal government to protect domestic jobs and businesses; and abandoning the 75-year old federal commitment to the poor.

Seventeen years later I fully expect a Republican Governor or two to declare in their state of the state address, “the era of small government is over.” Because again and again, Republican governors and legislatures are preempting and abolishing the authority of communities to protect the health and welfare of their communities.

  • Earlier this year Wisconsin passed a law eliminating the authority of cities villages and counties to require public employees to live inside city limits, which also voids any existing requirements.
  • A few weeks ago Kansas passed a law prohibiting cities, counties, and local government units from requiring private firms contracting with these governments to provide higher compensation than the state minimum wages or require other benefits and leave policies.
  • The Florida House recently voted to preempt local governments from enacting “living wage” laws and “sick time” ordinances. If signed into law, the bill also overrules counties like Miami-Dade and Broward that have “living wage” ordinances that require companies that contract with the county to pay wages higher than the federal minimum wage, and sometimes provide certain benefits.

According to the  Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 19 states severely restrict or outright abolish the right of local governments to build their telecommunications networks. Cities began building their own networks after years of begging private phone and cable companies to upgrade their inadequate infrastructure, moderate their continual price increases and improve their customer service. When cities proved to be serious and successful competitors, telecommunications firms, rather than responding to the competition, went to state legislatures to abolish it. Last year North Carolina became the latest state to join the ranks of those who refuse to allow communities to make their own decisions about their own affairs.

Freedom for Unrestricted Fracking

Several years ago the federal government abdicated responsibility for regulating fracking. The Safe Drinking Water Act mandates federal regulation of underground injection activities in order to protect groundwater sources. But in 2005 Congress amended the definition of “underground injection” to specifically exclude “the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities.”

In November 2010 Pittsburgh became the first city in the nation to ban fracking within city limits.

In February 2012 the Pennsylvania legislature responded by passing Act 13, a law that allows fracking in all parts of the city, including residential neighborhoods, which in essence abrogates the right of cities to exercise traditional zoning powers to protect residential neighborhoods from noise and odors and industrial dangers.

In mid-2012 Longmont, a suburb of Denver strengthened its oil and gas regulations. The Colorado Attorney General filed a complaint in court. In response activists successfully got the question put on the ballot. In November 2012 Longmont voters approved the measure with almost 60 percent of the vote. The Attorney General sued. And Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper announced the state would sue any and every city or county that followed the lead of Longmont.

In each of these cases one could argue about the legislation these communities want to enact. In hundreds of communities over the past decade such arguments have taken place, vigorous debates about the appropriateness of residency requirements, or living wage ordinances or fracking restrictions. Communities have gone both ways on these issues. But I would argue that they should have the right to make the decision for themselves. For it is at the local level where those who feel the impact of the decision have the biggest opportunity to be involved with making the decision. Certainly when it is a question of how to spend local taxpayers’ money, or what kinds of commercial activities to allow within residential areas of a city, the community itself should be the locus of decision making and state legislatures should as much as possible respect the outcome.

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