Just two months into 2023, we may have already found the overused buzzword of the year: “local control”.
Local Tyranny And The Local Control Debate
"Rather, “big government” characterizes a government which excessively intrudes on people’s lives beyond what is absolutely necessary to secure our lives, liberties, and property."
Debates abound in the Montana legislature about the proper role of local governments this year, with proposals to place sideboards on local government power coming from both Democrats and Republicans alike.
Some proposals target local government’s excessive local zoning regulations, something even local governments themselves admit have gotten out of control and contribute to Montana’s affordable housing crisis. One bill aims to cap the growth of local government budgets. Other proposals prohibit local governments from banning gasoline powered cars, restricting the types of energy sources available or discriminating against cryptocurrency mines.
Meanwhile, local governments are pushing for more control, lobbying for the ability to ban plastic bags and straws, to impose a sales tax and to ticket your car with red light cameras.
What are Montanans to make of this local control debate? To be clear, I believe that reasonable people can disagree about this issue. I believe there is virtue to be found in the concept of limiting local government power and I also believe there is virtue in the notion of decentralizing government decision making. This is an issue that does not cut cleanly down ideological lines, and therefore can make people feel a little uneasy.
Many state legislators say local governments have become local tyrannies, saddling Montanans with burdensome taxes and regulations that dictate all aspects of our lives. Legislation, they argue, is needed to bring local governments back within their proper bounds. On the other side, local government advocates opposing such legislation argue that decision-making is best done at the local level, where in theory governments will be most innovative and responsive to the unique needs of their communities.
The legislature clearly has the authority to tell local governments what they can and can’t do, that’s not up for debate. Under Montana’s Constitution, the legislature has created local governments with delegated power provided by law. However, the question of when the legislature should override local authority is a debatable proposition as a matter of policy.
As I’ve developed my own opinions on this issue, I have kept this classic witticism in mind: “a government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take away everything that you have.”
So-called “big government” doesn’t just refer to the sheer number of employees a government may have or how many trillions it carries in debt. Rather, “big government” characterizes a government which excessively intrudes on people’s lives beyond what is absolutely necessary to secure our lives, liberties, and property. Local governments can certainly become “big governments” when they recklessly spend taxpayer money or wantonly infringe on the rights and freedoms guaranteed to the people in our Constitution.
Cities and Counties may differ, but the rights of people do not. The people of Montana have put their trust in the state, via our Constitution, to protect the inalienable rights of all people from government. I believe that when local governments clearly infringe on people’s rights and extend beyond the scope that’s objectively necessary to advance legitimate public health, safety, or welfare objectives, then the legislature has a duty to the people of Montana to draw a bright red line in the sand and say “no”.
Since the state has created local governments, the legislature ultimately has a duty to act as a check and balance on local power. As I like to say, local control requires local responsibility.
This column originally appeared in Lee Newspapers.