Helicopter Lawmakers in Lansing
By Amy Kerr Hardin | Dec. 30, 2017
The war on local control started with an incendiary state fireworks law designed to supersede local rules, the folly of which was painfully illustrated when a local citizen blasted away a good portion of his, um … man package. Pet owners across the state needed to administer tranquilizers to their furry friends to quell the trauma of the raucous revelry. Homeowners continue to stand vigil with garden hoses every holiday to squelch sparks from their neighbors drunken debauchery.
Local control in Michigan has been under siege since the 2010 election swept a GOP majority into office. It was an electoral feat accomplished largely by way of gross gerrymandering. Conservatives, who formerly espoused the sacrosanct virtues of home rule, suddenly became experts in the business of annulling the state's venerated town-hall tradition. Seven years ago, Republicans declared war on municipal and school board authorities through a deluge of initiatives designed to curb the power of citizens.
GOP lawmakers soon turned their attention to the tragic plight of the endangered plastic shopping bag with a legislative initiative that resulted in a ban on local laws regulating that scarce commodity. Thank you Sen. Wayne Schmidt for that bit of genius lawmaking. The big box stores are in your debt. (Oh wait, they paid you.)
Michigan has endured a barrage of proposals supporting guns in schools — too many to enumerate here. The most deprave among them occurred five years ago, when a GOP vote to allow firearms in classrooms and on playgrounds took place on the very day of the Sandyhook massacre. Gov. Snyder wisely wielded the veto pen for that one. Yet, Republican lawmakers continue to push their guns, guns, guns madness — an initiative largely animated through campaign cash and support from the National Rifle Association. Several weeks ago Michigan senators, including Schmidt, once again passed a guns-everywhere legislative package. The idea is to allow concealed carry in schools, day care centers, college campuses, and churches. Pistol packers would be subject to an additional eight hours of training. The House has yet to act on these measures. The NRA issues grades to politicians, rewarding them for lax gun policies. Gold stars all around.
The wish list of lobbyists grows exponentially, matching the swelling hubris of the GOP monopoly. Beyond guns, plastic bags, and fireworks, state officials are attempting to lay down the law on zoning and land use issues, including short-term rentals and accessory dwelling units, sanctuary city statuses, minimum wage and transgender bathroom laws, and non-discrimination ordinances.
The attack on local governance is currently focused on regulating public sector legacy costs. Lansing wants control over funding of municipal police and firefighter pensions. Legislators have a habit of pointing an accusatory finger at local leaders over their budgetary shortfalls, conveniently forgetting that much of that public debt is a direct result of decades of the state balancing its budget by shirking their revenue sharing obligations to smaller units of government — robbing Peter to pay Paul. State lawmakers are hardly the financial wizards they pretend to be. Shafting first responders as a matter of public policy seems a rather perilous course.
Let's not forget the most egregious affront of all: Michigan's emergency manager law. Children were poisoned and people died from the rash edicts of the state-appointed overlord in Flint. To call it criminal is not political bombast. It's fact. Perpetrators must be subject to justice, and it may go all the way to the governor's office.
In Traverse City, Mayor Jim Carruthers is among many city leaders across the state weary of the assault on local autonomy. Citing the Michigan Home Rule Act of 1909, he believes that corporate control is dominating policy decisions in Lansing and eroding the intent of the law. On the state's current trajectory, Carruthers warns, "We can kiss what makes our area so great goodbye." He points to the Chamber of Commerce, commenting that "much of this is coming from the conservative lobby … where the business- first, or at-any-cost attitude seems to control politics these days."
The Michigan Municipal League, an advocacy group for local communities, has taken up the mantle of preserving citizen-based governance. The organization estimates that a third of their resources are directed toward reigning in the excesses of Lansing. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce and special interest groups often thwart their efforts; both are heavy campaign contributors to our lawmakers. Money speaks, and clearly, it legislates too.
The Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP), a research group from the Gerald R. Ford School for Public Policy at the University of Michigan, published in June of this year a comprehensive survey of local leaders on this important topic. Among its key findings was the discovery that a whopping 70 percent of Michigan's local officials believe the state is taking away too much decision-making authority. In fact, only 8 percent expressed significant disagreement with that view.
Yet, when CLOSUP drilled down on specific areas of concern, it found that locals were more willing to partially concede some authority and to accept guidance from the state in a few areas. Social and political hot potatoes were more likely to get the toss back to state officials. However, local leaders object strongly to relinquishing jurisdiction over land use and planning, local finance and tax policy, government operations, and economic development plans.
Local officials, and the communities they serve, rarely benefit from the regulatory micromanagement of helicopter lawmakers who are primarily beholden to lobbyists, not constituents. Time for Lansing to back off.
Amy Kerr Hardin is a retired banker, a regionally known artist, and a public-policy wonk and political essayist at Democracy-Tree.com. She and her husband have lived in the Grand Traverse area since 1980, where they raised two children. Both have been involved in local politics and political campaigns.