Tag Archives: local control

The Hidden Hand

When I hear the term “hidden hand,”  I immediately think of Adam Smith. But a couple of weeks ago, I came across a very different definition of that term–one that resonated with me.

Published by a think-tank called “Support Democracy,”the article addressed the growing problem of pre-emption, which it dubbed “the hidden hand.” In Indiana, we’ve had that problem as long as I can remember; it’s what I fulminate about when I decry local government’s lack of home rule.

Many of America’s cities, towns, and counties have less power than they did at the start of the year to protect the health and safety of their communities or to respond to the unique needs and values of their residents. That’s because between January and June 2019, state legislatures across the nation continued a troubling trend of passing more laws forbidding or “preempting” local control over a large and growing set of public health, economic, environmental, and social justice policy solutions. This legislative session, state lawmakers made it illegal for locally-elected officials to enact a plastic bag ban in Tennessee, raise revenues in Oregon, regulate e-cigarettes in Arkansas, establish minimum wages in North Dakota, protect county residents from water and air pollution produced by animal feedlots in Missouri, or protect immigrants from unjust incarceration in Florida.

Some states this session went further, with bills aimed at abolishing core powers long held by cities, including their ability to negotiate and set employment terms with their own contractors, enact and implement local land use laws, and control their own budgets and finances.

Here in Indiana, local jurisdictions have long been under the thumb of state lawmakers. The same legislators who bitch and moan about “unfunded mandates” imposed on state governments by Washington blithely operate on the assumption that they know better than the folks running city and county jurisdictions how those officials should do their jobs.

Are there issues that require federal mandates? Sure. Are there issues that ought to be handled consistently statewide? Of course. But the policy debate should center on what those issues are–and it rarely if ever does. Instead, we have the Indiana General Assembly deciding what vehicles Indianapolis can include in our locally-funded mass transit plans (no light rail for us–why, no one can explain).

It’s bad enough that a former Governor whose political savvy outstripped his devotion to rational policymaking (yes, Mitch, I’m looking at you) shoehorned a tax cap into the state constitution. That certainly made him popular. It has also destroyed the ability of local governments to provide appropriate levels of basic services. (Not to mention that provisions of this sort don’t belong in constitutions, which are by definition frameworks prescribing how issues like taxation are to be dealt with.)

State and local governments desperately need to revisit the allocation of power between them. In states like Indiana, state-level lawmakers need to allow local governments to make the decisions that are properly local.

As the report at the link explains,

Preemption is a tool, like the filibuster, that can and has been used by both political parties. In the past, preemption was used to ensure uniform state regulation or protect against conflicts between local governments. Preemption has also been used to advance well-being and equity. State civil rights laws, for example, allow cities to increase protections, but prohibit them from falling below what was required under law. Traditional preemption emphasized balance between the state and local levels of government. While state policy still had primacy, according to Columbia Law School professor Richard Briffault, it was understood that “state policies could coexist with local additions or variations.”This is not what we are seeing now.

“New Preemption” laws, according to Briffault, “clearly, intentionally, extensively, and at times punitively, bar local efforts to address a host of local problems.” Some of this is propelled by a disdain for local lawmaking and urban lawmakers seen as too liberal, intent on “oppressing” the free market and “trampling” on individual liberty…. Another primary driver of new preemption is the opportunity conservatives now have to deliver on a long-promised anti-regulatory agenda – an agenda that disproportionately and negatively affects women, people of color and low income communities. These new preemption laws are being used to prohibit local regulations without adopting new state standards in their place, effectively preventing any regulation or policy remedy at all.The efforts to consolidate power at the state level and end local authority over a wide range of issues are part of a national long-term strategy often driven by trade associations and corporate interests. Much of this effort has been orchestrated by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an industry-funded organization made up by lobbyists and a quarter of all state lawmakers that writes and distributes model bills.

In my most recent book (which I shamefully keep hyping) I make a case for revisiting federalism, and ensuring that control of issues is lodged with the appropriate level of government.

I doubt I’ll live long enough to see that happen…..

Plastic Bags and Local Control

When I become morose about the sad level of policy in Indiana, a news item will often remind me that We Are Not Alone.

We have an excellent recent example from Arizona. Arizona is one of those states that can be depended upon to resist federal mandates and trumpet the virtues of local control. State level local control, that is. (Much like with Indiana, what state-level lawmakers really want is the ability to thumb their noses at both the federal government and local political subdivisions. If the statehouse exercises authority, it’s good; if a city or county wants freedom to manage its own affairs, that’s terrible.)

Case in point: Arizona just passed a bill banning efforts by local government units to discourage the use of plastic bags. As the New York Times reported,

State Senator Nancy Barto, the bill’s sponsor and a Republican, said that “excessive regulation on containers creates more work and cost for retailers and other businesses — and leads to higher consumer cost and a drag on economic growth.” She added: “Municipalities acting on their own to implement these mandates run counter to the state’s goal to overcome Arizona’s sluggish job growth and economic stability.”

The only city to carry out any such rule is Bisbee, southeast of Tucson, which banned single-use plastic bags and requires a 5-cent charge per paper bag.

Lauren Kuby, a city councilwoman in Tempe, cited estimates that 50 million single-use plastic bags are used each year in the city and that less than 5 percent are recycled. She said the city faced costs from litter, as well as from the damage the plastic bags caused to machinery at recycling facilities.

Allowing cities and towns to decide for themselves which policy is most cost-effective and/or environmentally sound is evidently unthinkable in Arizona’s statehouse.

Sounds a lot like Indiana, where lawmakers deeply resent regulation by the federal government, but made Indianapolis beg for three plus years for permission to hold a referendum on whether to tax ourselves to support decent public transportation.

PLEASE Make Them Stop!

It’s no longer possible for us mere mortals to keep up with the craziness in the Indiana General Assembly.

Yesterday, Doug Masson posted about House Bill 1123.

It prohibits a health insurance policy from covering abortion services provided by a medical provider except that it can provide such coverage if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or if an abortion is necessary “to avert the pregnant woman’s death or a substantial an irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.” However such coverage may be provided through an endorsement or rider.

The paternalism and anti-abortion zealotry that led to this particular effort to tell insurance companies what they can and cannot cover, and how, joins a raft of other equally high-handed measures.

Does your local government want to ask its citizens what modes of transportation they want –and what they’re willing to pay? Tough. We know better than you what’s good for you.

Does your local sheriff want to sponsor a gun buy-back to get weapons off the street? Don’t try it. Our gun freaks will not only forbid it, they’ll add a measure letting  you bring a gun to school.

Who do you businesses and local governments think you are, anyway–trying to make your own decisions?

Whatever happened to the self-described legislative champions of free enterprise–the pro-business folks who advocate limiting regulations to those absolutely necessary to protect the public? Where are all the staunch defenders of local control–the legislators so protective of their prerogatives that they deep-sixed Common Core? (How dare anyone suggest that Indiana schoolchildren learn the same math and history as kids in other states?)

I guess when the General Assembly talks about “liberty” and “local control,” it means liberty from federal rules and the right to control everything else.

Our Political Charade

I’ve reluctantly concluded that self-government doesn’t work. Voters respond to vacuous platitudes and bumper-sticker slogans, and candidates are perfectly willing to pander to their uninformed biases while evading the complexities of policy.

Case in point, an egregious but certainly not the only available example: Mike Pence.

Yesterday, in the “candidate conversation” hosted by the Public Policy Institute at IUPUI, Pence said he wants Indiana to have more control over how federal dollars are spent in the state. His campaign literature features a promise to create a new state agency to “reject” federal regulations, and (an unrealistic and ridiculous) promise to return federal dollars to Washington.

A couple of days ago, he declared he would not create a state- based health insurance exchange.  (The Affordable Care Act authorizes states to set up these new, competitive marketplaces to allow individuals and small businesses to choose among an array of affordable, comprehensive health insurance plans.) The ACA provides for these exchanges to be established at the state level, but if a state refuses to do so, authorizes the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to come into the state to establish that state’s exchange.

It is obviously in Indiana’s best interests to control our own Exchange. The ACA gives states considerable flexibility to tailor these mechanisms to the needs of the people living in that state, and a locally-run Exchange is likely to be more responsive to the concerns of our elected officials and the professionals and nonprofits who serve the constituency using the Exchange. Refusing to allow the state to create an Exchange doesn’t keep the dreaded “Obamacare” from being implemented; it simply assures that it will be controlled by Washington–something Pence claims he opposes.

This pastiche of inconsistent positions makes no sense as policy. But that really isn’t the point–at least, it isn’t the point for Pence. The point is to tell voters what they want to hear–that they can get services without paying for them, that (despite substantial evidence to the contrary) further reducing taxes will create jobs, that a program to increase access to healthcare is an assault on their freedom (Pence’s website really does say that), that Indiana should control its own destiny –except where we refuse to do so and thereby hand control over to the federal government. It’s all ludicrous and incoherent, and it has kept Pence ahead in the polls.

It’s been said that we get the government we deserve.

That’s the problem.