Editorial: State should take care with local control

May. 04, 2013 @ 08:36 PM

Republican lawmakers in Raleigh don't want the federal government telling them what to do.

States know best how to manage their own affairs, right?

And yet, in the past two weeks, The Herald-Sun's Ray Gronberg has reported on at least two bills floating around the state House and Senate that would let the General Assembly overrule municipalities and county governments when it comes to environmental rules and city rental inspections.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican, is co-sponsor of the bill that would block cities and counties from enacting environmental rules that are tougher than what's on the state books. His motivation, no surprise, is that local rules might make some land impossible to develop.

"We want to go back and have a hard look at the rules put in place by cities and counties and see if they make sense anymore," Brown said.

But isn't that the job of those people we elect to run our cities and counties?

Erin Wynia, a lobbyist with the N.C. League of Municipalities, thought the bill "will likely have some unintended consequences."

In particular, Orange and Durham counties might find themselves clashing with state regulators over buffers for streams and reservoirs, because they treat state regulations as nothing more than a baseline.

North Carolina isn't the first state where this sort of tug-of-war has evolved between local governments and their up-the-food-chain lawmakers in the capital.

In 2012, Josh Goodman at Stateline.org reported about Republican leaders in Franklin, Tenn., complaining not about the Obama administration, but the General Assembly in Nashville. After Republicans claimed a comfortable majority there in 2010, they put forth at least 14 bills that would reduce local zoning and planning regulations, limit local controls on signage and even ban municipalities from requiring sprinkler systems.

"All the mayors in our region," said Franklin Mayor Ken Moore at the time, "are quite concerned about this potential gutting of our ability to do what's in the best interest of our communities."

Goodman wrote: "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."

Similar struggles have cropped up in Maine, Indiana and Florida. Some may call these power grabs or chalk them up to paradoxical hypocrisy. But others say it's not hypocritical at all, because it fits with the more conservative mindset of Republicans who are now in charge because they think localities can get too carried away with regulations that run counter to the state's vision.

Whether it fits the conservative mold or not, making changes just to make them, without any apparent foundation of fact to support those changes, is a dangerous slope to slide down.