Opinion: Daily Journal

Not All Politics Is Local

If there was a national prize for rhetorical incoherence, one could find several excellent nominations among the ranks of North Carolina politicians and political commentators.

For an example, you need look no further than the now-ubiquitous claim that North Carolina Republicans are waging a war against localities in contravention of their longstanding principle of local control. Here are the elements of the indictment, delivered most recently in a Bloomberg Business Week piece for a national audience:

• The Republican-led General Assembly has enacted a bill transferring ownership and control of Asheville’s water system to a regional authority. It awaits Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature.

• The General Assembly is considering the idea of transferring ownership and control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport to a regional authority.

• The General Assembly and the McCrory administration are in the process of re-negotiating a lease signed by outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue last year to let Raleigh develop a city park on state-owned land that includes the old Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospital.

• The General Assembly is in the process of enacting a local bill that changes electoral districts for the Wake County school board and shifts those elections to even-numbered years.

• The General Assembly is in the process of enacting Senate Bill 612, which among other things would prevent local governments from establishing environmental regulations that exceed state or national thresholds or requirements.

• The General Assembly has already blocked municipalities from using involuntary annexations to add new neighborhoods to the tax rolls without the residents’ consent.

Sound like an avalanche of hurt on localities? Well, set aside your personal views on these issues — I’m not sure about some of them myself — take a closer look. In the case of the Asheville water and Charlotte airport controversies, what the legislature really proposes to do is intervene in disputes among several different, duly elected localities. (Asheville, Buncombe, and Henderson counties were part of a regional water system as recently as 2005, when the city withdrew.) Airport users outside Charlotte were content with city ownership of the airport until recent events raised questions about its management and policies. Many of these local residents will welcome having their county or town represented on a regional authority board (although, admittedly, some of the board members will be state appointees, which fits the critics’ meme more closely). Something similar is going on in Wake County, where the Republican majority on the county commission likes the idea of bringing the district design and electoral calendar for the school board closer to those of the commission while the Democratic majority on the school board opposes the idea.

The Dorothea Dix case has nothing to do with local control, at all. Everyone admits that the state owns and controls the land in question. The dispute is about whether Gov. Perdue truly acted on behalf of state taxpayers as a whole when she gave Raleigh a very sweet lease deal.

On the other hand, the environmental and annexation cases really are instances of state government overruling localities. But the principle of local control was never meant to suggest that localities get the last word on matters of public policy. Many of the same people criticizing these bills also criticized an abortive attempt by a few Republican lawmakers to intervene on behalf of Rowan county commissioners who want to offer Christian prayers before meetings. Critics of that ill-advised resolution properly observed that localities are not free to go their own way if it would conflict with state or national protections of individual rights.

As it happens, conservative proponents of annexation limits and regulatory reform make precisely the same observation with regard to another individual right, the right to own and control private property. They fear local encroachment on their property rights and properly seek state or federal protection against it.

I would also observe that many of the same people criticizing the Asheville water and Charlotte airport bills have for decades advocated regional authorities to deliver water and transportation services, as well as merged school systems to replace separate city and county systems, often arguing that state government should encourage or require such outcomes through state budgetary or regulatory policies. Furthermore, many of them oppose a current Republican initiative to lift class-size mandates and let local school districts spend their education dollars as they see fit. And many of them also oppose a Republican-supported bill that would give municipalities the option of placing public notices on their own websites rather than paying to place those notices in local newspapers. These critics oppose local control, in other words, when they fear local officials won’t do the “right” thing. Yet they accuse GOP lawmakers of doing the same.

Is there a path to policy coherence here? I think so. Here’s a conceptual framework all sides might want to consider:

• The relationship of North Carolina localities to state government is different than the relationship of states to the federal government. Localities are creations of the state, designed to carry out state constitutional functions through the use of the state’s general police power. As much as possible, localities ought to be given the latitude to raise and spend revenues from their own citizens as they see fit, and to spend state grants or pass-through funds as they wish as long as it fits with the intended use of the funds. According to this principle, then, localities should enjoy maximum authority over their own property taxes and somewhat-less authority over taxes imposed on both residents and visitors, such as those on retail sales. Also according to this principle, localities ought to receive state funds for education, social services, and other jointly administered programs in the form of block grants or broad budget codes that permit local flexibility in exchange for demonstrable results.

• When disputes arise among localities, the preference ought to be for voluntary compacts and negotiated settlements. But when conflicts prove intractable, legislative action is clearly constitutional and may well be beneficial to local residents who have no other recourse.

• Because local governments only enjoy the power delegated to them by state government, their power can never extend to violations of the state constitution, or of other basic protections of individual rights established by state statute. When the legislature acts to protect individual rights from local encroachment, that makes the size and scope of government shrink, not grow.

I know we’re not going to get an immediate consensus on state-local relations. For now, I’ll settle for a more coherent conversation about it.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and a contributor to First in Freedom: Transforming Ideas into Consequences for North Carolina.