What Happens When Local Control is Inconvenient?

Charleston GazetteWe’ve all heard the phrase “local control.” It’s about putting the decision-making power in the hands of those who live, work, and play in our communities. We have heard lawmakers say that the “best government is the one that governs closest to the people.” Story link

However, some state legislators are now poised to abandon one of their bedrock principles by taking local control away from our cities and counties. For example, Senate Bill 458 would preempt our local governments by effectively taking away a municipality’s power to do what is best for its people across a broad range of policies.

This is a new and dangerous shift in West Virginia state policy.

In recent years, the Legislature championed and passed laws that shifted control from the state level down to the local level, such as the home rule law. Now many want to tell our mayors and city councils what they can and cannot do.

In 2016, the city of Charleston – through the recently enacted home rule law - asked its voters about serving alcohol earlier than state law allows on Sundays. Voters overwhelmingly approved of the “brunch bill” and serving alcohol starting at 10 a.m. on Sundays at restaurants and private clubs. The Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau lobbied hard for the change, saying it would increase economic activity.

Senate Bill 458, which has passed the Senate and is now on its way to the House, is a complete 180 on how legislators have respected local control in the past.

Senate Bill 458 would limit the ability of local officials from passing new laws or overturning existing local laws relating to how we treat workers and families in our communities.

Local communities know best how to meet the needs of their citizens and businesses. When state lawmakers prevent communities from passing policies that work for them, they can hinder economic growth and damage the quality of life where we live. Passing this bill would end the ability of local mayors, councils, and commissioners to represent their communities’ unique values, views, and needs. They would be powerless to impact local matters like wages, paid sick time, fair scheduling, employment history — even bans on plastic bags.

It seems some of our lawmakers are more concerned with protecting large out-of-state corporations than the hard-working families that make our economy run.

So what’s with the change of tune when it comes to local control?

Special interest groups have poured millions into state level races to control statehouses across the nation. Now they want a return on their investment — enter Senate Bill 458.

Instead of a race to the top, special interest groups want to stop our local elected leaders from doing what is right for the people who elected them to office. So far, these special interest groups – with large amounts of money – have kept cities in 25 states from being able to raise their minimum wages and 19 states have banned local action on ensuring people have access to paid sick days.

If city councils across West Virginia wanted to advance a living wage in a state where 32 percent of its workforce works in a low-wage industry, politicians in Charleston would stop them.

If county commissions were sick of seeing their neighbors forced to choose between work and taking care of a sick family member, there would be little they could do.

Congress and many statehouses are gridlocked. Party line votes are the norm. It is immensely troubling that local democracy – the one level of government that’s functioning efficiently, where we can demand change and accountability — is under attack.

If Senate Bill 458 becomes law, one thing is certain: Local voters will lose their voice.

Please tell your lawmakers that taking authority away from our cities and towns to make working families stronger is not help make our communities grow. If lawmakers won’t stand up for working people, at least let the cities who are closest to the people decide for themselves.

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© 2018 West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy