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The State-Local Squeeze: New State Priorities Threaten Local Government Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick Mulhearn
March 20, 2023

The State of Tennessee recently made an aggressive move to dictate how local governments in the state are allowed to govern. A new law signed by the governor will strip The Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County of the right to determine the size of its governing council, which since 1963 has consisted of 40 members representing communities in the Nashville metropolitan area.

One of the state legislators responsible for this new law—Sen. Adam Lowe of Calhoun—asserted that “Conventional wisdom for the past four decades has been that smaller group sizes tend to make better decisions and this is the largest council that we see … There’s a reason why we’re judged by 12 of our peers in a jury and there’s a reason, I think, why Christ walked with 12 of his disciples.”

This state act to limit local authority does not appear to be an outlier: similar efforts under way in Missouri, Mississippi, Florida and California seek to undermine or redefine how local governments serve and represent their constituencies. Some of these efforts are playing out in the courts, while others are legislative; but all of them represent a wholesale redefinition of what it means to be a local government.

Dillon Rule versus Home Rule

Local government authority has always been in a perilous position: with no specific standing under the US Constitution, local governments have only ever exercised those powers delegated to them by the state, or powers not specifically assumed by the state. States generally recognize local authority in their constitutions as ‘Home Rule’ or leave specific decisions to courts’ discretion under what’s known as Dillon Rule—both of which are efforts by the state to allow local government the latitude to govern in areas of their specific interest (such as law enforcement and other municipal services) while preserving state primacy.

The role local governments play in delivering services to their communities—as the government closest to the people they serve—is thus defined by both state action and in-action and this push-and-pull is particularly susceptible to politics.

Why Now?

Partisanship is at least adjacent to most of these exercises in federalism, although there also seems to be a disconnect between the priorities of state and local policy makers as issues such as housing shortages and water rights are becoming more emergent.

Florida, for example, has leveraged state authority to limit liberal cities’ decision making on a particularly partisan level. The governor recently removed a locally-elected prosecutor whose prosecutorial priorities didn’t align with the future presidential hopeful’s. This would appear to be a naked display of partisanship  as a judge in a subsequent lawsuit determined that the governor had violated the prosecutor’s constitutional rights in removing him from office.

At the same time, though, the Florida Legislature has floated a raft of bills restricting local governments’ authority to protect and maintain local water resources, prevent illegal dumping and determine the best ways to regulate development. These instances—although controversial—appear to be the state asserting broader authority over planning and development, indicating that issues such as access to water extend beyond any local jurisdiction and are thus the purview of the state.

Supporters of some of these bills feel that state control facilitates consistency in land use planning and facilitates development: “Development is a reality, and we’ve got to figure out the most responsible way of doing that,’’ [and] Businesses need as much predictability and consistency in the regulatory structure as we can so that they know what they’re getting into before they start a project.” As Florida welcomes nearly 900 new residents every day, these may be legitimate policy issues that require state oversight.

In California a very similar fight over development is playing out in the courts rather than the statehouse.  In order to meet housing needs, the State determined that the patchwork of local government regulations regarding development should be superseded by new state housing requirements. The City of Huntington Beach disagreed and enacted policy that further restricted growth, and the State has brought suit against the City to enforce state law. This marks the second time California has sued Huntington Beach over housing, and represents an inversion of the story in Florida: here a liberal state is seeking to compel a conservative city to conform with state policy development priorities.

California is actually experiencing a decline in population which according to the California Department of Finance is a direct reflection of housing costs some have related to local government inaction. The state’s efforts to rein in the housing crisis have thus far failed completely, which has led to more aggressive action at the local level.

The dynamics of the state and local relationship have always been fraught but we appear to be entering a new phase of public administration as state and local governments endeavor to assert and define themselves in a particularly partisan phase of American history. Ultimately, though, the result must reflect the needs of the many balanced against the needs of the few; and in a utilitarian outcome mitigate potential costs for everyone involved.

Author: Patrick Mulhearn, MPA, is the director of public policy and community engagement for Ting Internet.  He has fifteen years in public sector consulting, governance, and policy-making, with a focus on infrastructure: transportation, electricity, and data.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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