Republican-controlled legislatures in several states are finding it difficult to stick to one of their mantras: the government closest to the people governs best. In Tennessee, where the GOP now holds a supermajority, the state is attempting to wrest control from cities and towns on a variety of issues ranging from charter schools to property rights.
A prime example is weapons control. State Senator Mike Bell, a Republican from Riceville, wants to legalize carrying knives of any shape and size, even if some cities ban them. Bell is ok with preempting local laws in this case because, in his mind, bearing arms is a Second Amendment right.
“You look at any other constitutional right—free speech,” Bell said. “We don’t allow cities to have a more strict interpretation of the First Amendment.”
Bell’s efforts come at a time when Republicans in the state Legislature are fighting to prevent the federal government from passing laws that might restrict the sale of guns or ammunition in Tennessee.
“We have plenty of concerns about the laws that might be coming down the pike,” said State Senator Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mount Juliet, who has been rallying lawmakers to oppose any restrictions on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.
“Now they know how we feel,” said President of the Tennessee Municipal League Ken Wilber, who is also mayor of Portland.
From his perch as mayor, Wilber says he has seen the state chipping away at city sovereignty. Wilbur wishes all state laws were worded the way a proposal to allow wine to be sold in supermarkets is worded. That bill, currently being considered by the state Legislature, leaves the ultimate decision-making authority to the local governments.
“They [state lawmakers] are turning that back and saying, ‘The people in your community know how to make the best decision,’” Wilbur said. “Let that be true for everything then.”
The push and pull of local control is an old tug-of-war. But there’s new tension as the party that champions decentralized power and small government wins control of more state legislatures.
David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute has been watching this trend. Boaz says championing small government, “means you have to accept that in some of the jurisdictions, decisions will be made that you don’t like.” But that can be hard for states to do.
In Florida, the Legislature asserted its authority over municipal governments on fertilizer regulations. In Indiana, the issue has been local taxation for public transit. Boaz is an advocate for local control, but he says cities are chartered by states, so states do have the legal right to tell city governments what to do.
“There are good philosophical and practical arguments for local control, even though the state probably does have the authority to make the decisions,” Boaz said.
And since states helped form the federal government, Boaz says there are some valid arguments for rejecting Washington’s rule at the same time states assert their authority over cities, even if doing so gets them accused of not practicing what they preach.
“It makes us look like a bunch of hypocrites,” said Sate Representative Joe Towns, a Democrat from Memphis.
Towns and much of the Memphis delegation objected to a ban on renaming or relocating military monuments. The legislation was a response to a decision made by the Memphis City Council to strip three Memphis parks of their Confederate-themed names.
“We’re delving into running these local governments, which is what we talk about not doing on this House floor,” Towns said during the debate.
The ban passed the state House despite Towns’ opposition.
A small few within the Republican ranks believe their party may be overreaching.
Representative John Forgety is a former school superintendent and he has been vocal in opposing a state panel that could approve charter schools, even if local school boards don’t want them.
“Whether we agree with them [local school boards] or whether we don’t agree with them, they are elected by the people to make those decisions,” Forgety said.
This legislative session, the definition of “local control” is often in the eye of the beholder. Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, also a Republican, supports a state authorizer for charter schools and said her support does not contradict her belief in small government.
“The local person here is the parent,” Harwell said.