Mayor Ken Moore and the elected aldermen of Franklin, Tenn., unanimously approved a resolution last month warning against overbearing central government.
That may not be a surprise, because Franklin is a conservative, reliably Republican city. What is surprising is that the target of Franklin’s concern wasn’t the Obama administration or the federal government. Instead, it was the central government a half-hour up the road in Nashville: the Republican-led Tennessee General Assembly.
The resolution included a list of 14 bills the mayor and aldermen opposed. On the list was legislation to substantially reduce local zoning and planning powers, as well as narrower bills to limit local regulation of signs, to ban localities from requiring residential sprinkler systems and to end local regulation of fireworks.
Taken together, local officials are worried that these bills will preempt powers they consider an essential part of their jobs. “All the mayors in our region,” said Moore (R), “are quite concerned about this potential gutting of our ability to do what’s in the best interest of our communities.”
Debates about the relative authority of state and local government are not new. But in places such as Tennessee, where Republicans claimed comfortable majorities in the legislature in 2010, they come with a different subtext.
Many of these state lawmakers have accused the federal government of adopting an imperious, one-size-fits-all mentality and of subverting the rightful powers of states. At the same time, many high-profile debates in the Tennessee Capitol over the past two years — on topics such as local wage rules and local non-discrimination rules, among others — have centered on the state trying to limit the power of localities to make decisions for themselves.
To some critics, that’s a sign of hypocrisy. What conservative supporters of these laws argue, though, is that localities sometimes use their power in ways that are inconsistent with values the state holds dear, such as defending property rights and reducing government regulation. Their case is that the only way the legislature can enact its vision for government is to use the power it has, not delegate it to others.
Most of the legislation in Tennessee hasn’t passed yet, and some of it seems unlikely to pass soon. Still, in Tennessee and elsewhere, it’s clear that for conservative lawmakers, local control is just one principle, a principle that sometimes is superseded by others.
While the extent of local government autonomy varies from state to state, nowhere is that autonomy absolute. Even in states such as Tennessee that offer limited “home rule,” state governments can act to overrule the localities.
“What the locals need to remember,” said Tennessee state Rep. Jim Gotto (R), “is that all the power they have is what has been delegated to them by the state.”
As a result, states and localities are engaged in a constant push and pull in state capitols. In Indiana, for example, the legislature rejected a bill this year that would have given some local jurisdictions the power to ask voters for tax increases to pay for public transit. The move came even though the mayor of Indianapolis considered the bill a top priority and the measure had the support of other local officials and business groups.
On the other hand, one of the hottest topics in Maine is legislation that would allow counties to opt out of the jurisdiction of the state Land Use Regulation Commission, giving the counties more power over development within their borders. Republicans are leading the charge against the land use commission. That squares with the party’s preference for government closer to the people.
Indeed, there are plenty of conservative legislators who preach deference to local sovereignty. “We need big government not to tell little government what to do,” said Florida state Rep. Fred Costello (R), who served as mayor of Ormond Beach for eight years before being elected to the legislature in 2010.
But for the past two years in Costello’s own state, with Republican Gov. Rick Scott and a conservative legislature in charge, there have been frequent debates about whether the way to smaller government is actually through more centralized rules. This year, the Florida Legislature considered bills to preempt everything from local fertilizer regulations to Miami-Dade County’s ban on pit bulls. It rejected a move to greatly limit local property taxes but did establish more state oversight of the budgets of local water management districts.
At the same time, Florida has moved to give localities more autonomy on one front: Last year, much to the dismay of environmentalists and smart growth advocates, it abolished the state Department of Community Affairs, giving local governments more say over new development.