State has the authority to override local overreach, and should

Below is a commentary by Freedom Foundation CEO Annette Meeks published in the May 4, 2017 edition of the Star Tribune.


With two weeks left in the 2017 legislative session, one of the most contentious issues being debated at the Capitol will likely provide a teachable moment for Minnesotans. What’s being debated is the notion of “local control” and whether the state should exercise its authority to “check” overreach in individual cities.

Our country was founded as a “federated government.” As Texas state Sen. Konni Burton has aptly put it, all 50 states are seen as “equal governing partners with the federal government.” This is because “the states created the federal government, giving it a particular and limited set of responsibilities, powers, and restrictions.” And the states cannot extend their authority over the federal government.

Yet, according to scholars, Burton explains, “no such equality exists between the state and its own political subdivisions.” The states created those subdivisions just as they created the federal government. But ultimately, state law limits and can pre-empt the powers and decisions of cities and counties.

Several communities in Minnesota have enacted, invoking powers of local control, laws and regulations that hinder small businesses with overly burdensome and costly regulations. The best illustrations are the workplace rules enacted by the Minneapolis City Council. Minneapolis politicians recently enacted ordinances that require businesses operating inside city limits to provide their workers with earned sick time, “fair scheduling” (whatever that is) and, likely coming this summer, a $15 minimum wage. Many of these new rules and regulations cannot be easily complied with by businesses that operate in multiple communities and will serve only to further shrink employment opportunities for Minneapolitans and raise the cost of doing business in the city.

Some local ordinances are enacted with good intentions, but many are not. And it’s often the latter where politicians hide the principle of local control as a means to an end.

Internet-connected wireless technology is exploding in its potential all across the country as states scramble to become first in line to develop the next generation wireless network, aptly named 5G. Arizona recently became the first state in the nation to streamline state and local regulations and fees that could hinder the deployment of the “small cell” technology that will allow for construction of a 5G network.

While Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, is laying the groundwork for future technology investments, local communities in Minnesota, under the guise of “local control,” hinder its deployment.

To develop a fully functional statewide 5G network that will allow such things as tele-surgery, self-driving cars and other wireless wonders, telecom companies need a level playing field. With 854 Minnesota cities, there needs to be an agreed-upon set of guidelines that provide wireless providers with certainty as to how much local communities can charge in the rent of local utility poles or traffic signals to install 5G antennas.

Not only will statewide guidelines speed up the development of a Jetsons-like future for all Minnesotans, but they also provide a reasonable answer to those communities currently left behind in the deployment of fixed broadband.

Other states are moving ahead with ambitious plans to develop this next generation technology while Minnesota communities continue to hide behind the notion of local control in setting the fees they can charge wireless companies. This, in turn, will force wireless providers to negotiate fees and regulations on a city-by-city basis, a laborious and costly undertaking. It is likely that the promise of 5G will be lost to Minnesotans along with the jobs and opportunities it would bring to our communities.

Michael Pagano, dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, said recently that “states are sovereign. Local governments are not. States can impose on local governments what they wish. The policy issues change year to year, but underlying all of this is the question of how much local autonomy does the state feel it ought to tolerate?”

We conservatives believe that less government is almost always the best solution, and that government closest to the people is almost always the best option. Yet Christine Sandefur, executive vice president of the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, recently clarified this philosophy by noting that, “[W]e don’t promote local control as an end in itself. We promote it as a means to achieve liberty. When it becomes destructive of those ends, when it’s in fact being oppressive, then absolutely we believe in state control.”

All of which beautifully describes the current state of affairs in Minnesota: it’s time for the state to assert its leadership to correct these misguided local ordinances that are interfering with our state’s progress and our citizens’ liberty.

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