Government in Idaho is organizationally split between the statewide and local levels. Often, statewide officials, particularly in the Idaho Legislature, are tempted to tell the local folks what to do.
The Idaho Republican Party platform states that, “The most effective, responsible, responsive government is government closest to the people”. Pres. Ronald Reagan echoed that sentiment, declaring, “The government closest to the people serves the people best.” You would think Idaho Republicans would champion decision-making at the county and city level.
Yet, the heavily Republican Idaho Legislature continues to constrict and constrain the ability of local governments to craft local solutions to local issues.
Last week, newly elected State Rep. Chad Christensen (R-Ammon) pushed a bill to ban cities from restricting use of cell phones while driving. The trigger was bans implemented by Idaho Falls and Pocatello on such use. Christensen told the House Local Affairs Committee that: “This is overreach of the city government, I believe, and their authority.”
A bill sponsored by House Majority Leader Mike Moyle is also moving forward to end the ability of cities to annex agricultural land over five acres without the owners’ permission.
These are part of a long string of measures where the Legislature has blocked local policy decisions. Over the last couple of years, legislation passed barring local governments from restricting short-term rentals like Airbnb. A key advocate was former Rep. Ron Nate who sought to overturn the prohibition on such rentals by his hometown of Rexburg.
In the last few years the Legislature has barred local bans on plastic shopping bags, blocked cities from setting a local minimum wage and circumscribed local communities’ ability to build biking and walking paths.
Under the Idaho Constitution, the Idaho Legislature has the right to dictate terms to Idaho’s local governments. They are political subdivisions of the State of Idaho and subject to legislative will.
But, should the Legislature butt-out more and just let local policy initiatives bloom?
Here are some of the arguments for — and against — the Legislature taking the lead on policy over local governments.
First, legislators often argue the benefits of statewide uniformity on certain issues. For instance, that argument might have some merit on the issue of utilization of cell phones while driving. A driver in Idaho can drive through three of four local jurisdictions in an hour on the road. Differing standards are confusing in that context.
Second, it can be argued that the Legislature doesn’t understand the impact of some of its legislation. For instance, Idaho law allows for a December runoff election but only for cities. Why anyone would think voting the week after Thanksgiving is a good idea is an outright mystery. This system doesn’t generally change results and selects winners with diminished voter turnout. If that system applied to legislative candidates it would have been struck down years ago.
Third, some in the Legislature disagree ideologically with local policy choices and see their role as slapping down such policy “mistakes”. I think that was the issue on blocking local minimum wages and banning bans on short-term rentals.
Fourth, local governments can be laboratories of experimentation. The Idaho Legislature has so far ignored dealing statewide with discrimination in employment and housing based on sexual orientation. Roughly a dozen Idaho cities have crafted their own ordinances with varying provisions. Arguably, that “go slow and see the consequences” approach will yield a better result.
One key point should temper legislative actions to restrict local authority. Just because you have the power to do something doesn’t mean it is smart to do so.
Local officials have stood for election and likely have the continued support of a significant portion of their electorate. If they push back hard against legislative restrictions, the public could very well side with their local mayor or county commissioner over their local legislator.