In classic conservative political theory, the most significant form of government is what is closest to the people; that is, local governments in which the people select their neighbors to govern the community. As levels of government get farther and farther away from the people who elected them, political involvement becomes ever more abstract and the distant government gets potentially ever more problematic, especially when it usurps power from the officials closer to the people.
Nevertheless, today many state governments–particularly some that are Republican-controlled–are working to minimize the authority of local governments. Some of these conservative state legislators complain about a too powerful federal government usurping the rights of the states, while themselves working to increase the power of state government at the expense of city and county governments.
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it’s clear that for conservative lawmakers, local control is just one principle, a principle that sometimes is superseded by others.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.
It sounds like the emphasis is on final results rather than conservative principles. Taxes are bad and development is good, reason the state legislators, so they are voting to prevent local communities from raising taxes and limiting development. But shouldn’t the particular communities have the right to make decisions on issues like those? Are those bottom-line issues more important than the principle of limited government? If the federal government were to issue mandates on those issues that were to conservatives’ liking, would conservatives be OK with that, even if it meant usurping the jurisdiction of both state and local governments?