Local Government Is a Managerial Convenience to the State, Not a Blank Check
With the Missouri Legislature back in session, important proposals are already on the move in both chambers. Educational choice appears to be on a fast track of sorts in the senate, an urgent reminder that Missouri’s kids are suffering as many district schools remain shut down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
But education reform is just one iteration of a bigger idea: that the state has an obligation to step in to protect the rights of Missourians when local government bodies fail to do so. Yesterday the House Special Committee on Small Business held hearings on a wide array of COVID-related legislation. These bills would limit what local government could do in picking winners and losers among Missouri businesses, whether by shutting them down or dramatically limiting their operations for public health reasons. As we’ve said before, living in Chiefs Kingdom doesn’t make you Kansas City’s peasant, and having a small business in Missouri doesn’t make you a second-class citizen to big box stores and casinos.
Now many local administrators are crying “local control!” to defend their policy decisions from last year and to push back on these proposals as they pick up steam. Yet, shouting that “local control” is important doesn’t change what state subdivisions really are: managerial conveniences to the state. And when managers fail, the boss—here, the state—has to step in.
Local government exists not because it is categorically more efficient and effective in carrying out state priorities. It exists because there is a reasonable expectation that on most issues it will be. After all, local knowledge often has benefits to administration, but sometimes that just means more bureaucracy as we’ve seen in the explosion of administrators in both health care and education. “More administrators” sometimes just means “more administrators” and not “better administration.”
And that’s what mayors, county commissions, and a host of other local government jobs are: administrators. Where the state hasn’t spoken clearly, their role is to execute policies that don’t undermine the rights provided to Missourians who happen to be within the borders they administrate.
To fail to uphold state rights and adequately manage local privileges isn’t just some opportunity for a natural experiment, with local administrators ruling as they will. When a failure of local administration is identified, the state is duty-bound to consider intervention, and perhaps even intervene, to protect the rights and interests of Missourians in those districts.
That’s why I have to smile when I read about big Missouri cities and counties that intermittently extol the virtues of “local government” as a defense against state reform.
When Kansas City mayor Quinton Lucas pumps up the importance of local control to defend his COVID shutdowns and then advocates not only for a statewide mask mandate but for a national one (!) too, his local control argument is actually about his preferred ends of “local control” in a specific instance, not the means of “local control” as a general rule. Legislators should learn this well in the months ahead because local officials will be using “local control” as an argument to fight reform.
One final note:
The relationship between local governments and the states is not the same as the relationship between the states and the national government. States create or enable the creation of local governments as subsidiaries to their control. States created the national government as a co-sovereign. “Local control” is not the same as a “state’s rights” argument, nor should anyone conflate the two.
I’m thankful that the legislature is already queueing up a round of legislation to curb the excesses and rights violations that happened last year in Missouri. I hope legislators ensure local government is properly restrained in the future.