Amid Pandemic, A Call to Rebalance State and Local Power

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Route Fifty on 5/4/2020 by Bill Lucia

As flare ups between states and localities over the coronavirus response get attention, one scholar says it may be a good time to reexamine the relationship between the two levels of government.

Whether it’s plastic bag bans, minimum wage hikes, paid sick leave or a host of other issues, localities around the U.S. in recent years have often found themselves blocked under state law from adopting policies that their own local elected leaders and voters support.

More recently, similar clashes involving state and local authority have come up in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, with governors and local leaders at odds in some cases over the best way to respond to the disease outbreak.

In a new research paper, a New York University professor argues that the pandemic could provide an opportunity to reexamine and refashion the relationship between states and localities and the balance of power between them.

“On a daily basis, or an hourly basis, you can sit back and just see the flare ups, and the arguments and the tensions and the battles that are ensuing and will ensue between local government and state government,” Neil Kleiman said in an interview.

Examples of what Kleiman is talking about have occurred across the country.

For instance, a state lawmaker in Arizona threatened to take action against Flagstaff that could have resulted in the city losing state funding, after the mayor there moved to close beauty salons due to coronavirus safety concerns.

In Georgia, local officials in seaside communities criticized the governor for reopening beaches that they wanted to see remain closed.

A board of commissioners in a county in eastern Washington state voted to no longer recognize the governor’s stay-at-home order, but later backed down.

Episodes like these, along with the leading role that many governors are taking in responding to the virus, have drawn increased attention to the authority and responsibilities that the federal, state and local levels of government respectively hold.

But looking specifically at the relationship between state and local government, the report describes a steady erosion of power at the local level over the past 40 years.

Behind this trend, Kleiman says, is a “highly organized, highly ideological, conservative minority,” which has conducted a broad and aggressive campaign to strip authority primarily from urban areas, leaving more control over law making concentrated in state legislatures.

Kleiman highlights three conservative groups as leading this effort: the American Legislative Exchange Council, the State Policy Network and Americans for Prosperity.

The coronavirus outbreak and the government response to it, Kleiman writes, “has shone a bright spotlight on this dynamic as cities everywhere are scrambling to address issues of public health, safety and budget blowouts with little flexibility or authority.”

But even before the health crisis, he says, there were emerging efforts—involving local officials, foundations, universities, legal scholars and professional organizations—that were aimed at shifting the balance of state and local power so it was more favorable to localities.

Kleiman emphasizes that these efforts are not part of a “left wing” campaign to combat conservative influence. Instead, he says, they are geared towards establishing “sensible policymaking and a government framework rooted in facts, fairness and democratic principles.”

And overall, he cautions against viewing the issues around state and local power that he describes through an urban versus rural, or Democrat versus Republican lens.

“This is actually not the story of a binary power struggle. Rather, it is about just one group of conservative actors that has come to thoroughly dominate state-level policymaking,” he writes.

Kleiman, in the interview, said he wishes that more people paid closer attention on a regular basis to what’s going on in state capitols, and also that policies could be more oriented towards evidence and data, as opposed to “optics and ideology.”

In the report he calls for—among other things—a “reexamination of intergovernmental relations that better protects both public will and local authority.” The report includes recommendations for how various groups and institutions can participate in supporting this and other related work.

It also offers an overarching recommendation that the nation adopt an intergovernmental relations model dubbed “Localism 2.0,” guided by a set of principles that the National League of Cities and a group called the Local Solutions Support Center developed.

“Localism 2.0 will clearly spell out a balanced role between state and local governments, clarify the authority and scope of local government, and establish greater consistency and logic for reviews and revisions of intergovernmental arrangements,” the report says.

Local Solutions Support Center director Kim Haddow said by email that embracing the report’s recommendations means “recognizing that cities need to be full partners in governance—in times like ours of profound crisis as well as in any new normal we may find.”

A copy of the report can be found here.