In 1964, Ronald Reagan addressed the country endorsing Barry Goldwater. This speech—“A Time for Choosing”—brought Mr. Reagan in to the national political spotlight. One line from the speech stands out: he outlined what he believed was a fundamental choice “whether we believe in our capacity for self government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” This quote laid out his vision for the country: a vision he would echo 16 years later in his road to the White House. President Reagan, and many conservatives alike, believed that local control is intimately tied to self-government, and thus individual liberty. But in the last few years, as civil rights have progressed on the local level, Republicans have betrayed Mr. Reagan’s belief.
This year, Republicans have the largest majorities in state legislatures since before the Great Depression. They control 68 of 99 chambers, and 31 Governor’s offices. With the federal government at a standstill and state governments overwhelmingly conservative, progressives throughout the country have turned to municipalities for victories. In fact, cities have passed much legislation of late including minimum wage laws, paid sick leave extensions, plastic bag bans, and fracking prohibitions. But Republican states have not responded quietly. Rather, they have become the “intellectual elites” in state capitals telling city residents how to self-govern. Instead of from Washington DC, these legislatures have halted the capacity for self-government in the halls or Raleigh, Jefferson City, Madison, and others.
Ten states have passed laws preempting local governments from passing paid sick leave laws. For example, in Wisconsin, legislators in Madison overturned a referendum overwhelmingly passed by residents in Milwaukee expanding paid sick leave.
Twelve states have passed laws preempting minimum wage laws. Oklahoma passed a preemption law while the minimum wage underwent debate in Oklahoma City. When asked about his vote, Oklahoma Senator Dan Newberry said he supported the law because he believed minimum wage laws would “have a negative effect on the cities.” He may be right. But shouldn’t he have let the cities decide whether it would negatively impact them, especially under conservative values?
In September, Missouri’s state legislature overrode a veto from Governor Nixon to pass a preemption law on minimum wage. The law disallows localities to increase the minimum wage above the state’s $7.65 per hour. The states preemption law nullified laws in Kansas City and St. Louis, which increased the minimum wage to $13 an hour in 2020 and $11 an hour in 2016. Every single senator from Kansas City and St. Louis voted against the bill.
From a policy perspective, increased minimum wage laws seem perfect for local control. State legislatures are responsible for large municipalities as well as small rural communities. The cost-of-living between these communities vary remarkably. For instance, the impact of an increased minimum wage in St. Louis will be far different than its impact in Mokane, MO. So why not let St. Louis set its own rate?
Conservative lawmakers often promote the virtues of local control. And in many cases, I agree with them. Local control can promote democratic accountability, allow for flexible policy amongst diverse communities, breed laboratories of innovation, and disperse power. All of these justifications seem like a perfectly good reason to allow for municipalities to pass minimum wage laws—and other policies—without state capitals telling these cities how to plan their lives. Either that, or conservatives “abandon the American Revolution,” and admit they only support local control when it fits their politics.