A fleeting love affair with state takeover of local gov’t control
The Washington State Senate engaged in a substantive policy debate recently about the complex issue of safe injection sites, a response to addiction that is being considered in Seattle and King County. It was a sincerely non partisan public policy dialogue that surfaced legitimate concerns about safety, community, medical care and society’s evolving response to addiction.
Once it was time to vote, however, a troubling theme emerged that shows a new trend of the Republican Party: a predisposition for the state to pre-empt local government authority. Senate Bill 5223 pre-empts the ability of local governments to experiment with safe injection sites. The bill passed 26-23 with one Democrat joining all 25 Republicans to pass the measure.
The rigorous intellectual policy battle in our country over control of policy decisions between federal, state and local governments is a highlight of our constitutional republic. The initial tension articulated by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson was not a modest veneer of philosophy.
My colleague Rep. Matt Manweller and I discussed the relationship between federal and state governments and the 10th Amendment recently on TVW’s Inside Olympia. It’s an inevitable political debate at every level of government and generally where you stand depends upon where you sit.
In recent years, in a twist of history, Republican allies such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have boldly embraced state pre-emption as a way to halt progressive cities from enacting legislation. The New York Times highlighted this political trend as a nod to industry’s economic interests.
Despite that national momentum, I am surprised that there are no less than 16 major bills in the state Senate this year that pre-empt local government authority on issues ranging from homelessness to education, minimum wage to rent control, housing to utilities, telecommunications to income tax. It has not traditionally been a thesis of political life in Washington. I don’t know how this number compares to previous years or to times when Democrats held the majority, but it seems on the surface to be a full scale change in strategy for a party that historically held a belief that ‘the government closest to the people governs best.’
A political case can likely be made that some of the pre-emption bills are driven in part by a visceral response to Seattle City Council action or citizen activism. The city’s embrace of a $15 minimum wage, paid family and sick leave and other initiatives goes against the literal and figurative GOP platform as well as the broader business community. On the other side, a legitimate case may also be made that the shift toward a new Republican embrace of local pre-emption is linked to frustration over the statewide impacts of the Growth Management Act, a policy that has repercussions on rural areas that may not be fully apparent to people living in dense urban environments. If it’s good enough for Democrats to force the GMA on Republican rural areas, so goes the thinking, than it should be good enough for Democrats on more city-driven issues such as homelessness, taxation and labor standards.
To highlight the Senate shift in policy and strategy, many of the most conservative members seem to be the thought leaders of the state pre-emption trend. In some areas, of course, state pre-emption makes rational sense so it is not inherently good or evil in and of itself. But the trend is clear and strong under today’s leadership.
My view is that the state should look at pre-emption with a deep sense of reservation over the long haul. Local control over local issues spurs innovation, experimentation and exploration of new ideas. Even when I am sympathetic to a specific policy, such as my view that rent control is not an economically sound policy, I try to default to a position that local communities should generally have control over their own decisions.
Through it all, as political trends come and go, and majorities change in Olympia, it’s hard not to suspect the current love affair with state pre-emption floating throughout the halls of Republican-controlled Senate will ultimately prove fleeting.
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