Iowa part of national trend placing limits on local control
DES MOINES — Since winning control of both legislative chambers two years ago, Iowa Republicans have moved aggressively to block city and county government actions, leaving local officials frustrated but matching a trend seen in other states with single-party control.
Legislators in Iowa last year overturned already-enacted minimum wage increases in three counties, and this year they passed a sweeping immigration enforcement law threatening local governments with the loss of funding if they refuse to comply with the new requirements.
Traffic cameras, plastic shopping bags, minimum paid time off regulations and county election maps are among other areas targeted by efforts that resulted in a loss of local control since Republicans took over state government.
Iowa has plenty of company in so-called pre-emption laws, according to a study by the National League of Cities earlier this year that concludes state legislatures across the U.S. have become more “aggressive” in restricting local control.
Lori Riverstone-Newell, an associate professor at Illinois State University who studies state-level pre-emption laws, said the practice dates back to prohibition, but the strategy has grown over the past decade, largely in Republican-controlled states. She notes Democrats also have also pushed for pre-emption laws for different issues in states where they have control of government.
“There’s no speed bumps. There’s nothing to stop them,” Riverstone-Newell said.
As tempting as such laws can be for legislators, Alan Kemp, executive director of the Iowa League of Cities, said one-size-fits-all approaches often have unintended consequences.
Communities have different needs, depending on if they’re large or small, where they’re located and other factors, Kemp said. He said legislators across the country are under more pressure to adopt statewide policies on a variety of issues.
“A lot of power has devolved from the federal government down to the state level, and so legislators are in the position where they’re being approached by interest groups that are proposing changes that are beneficial to them,” Kemp said.
Kemp said interest groups that would previously have been active in Washington have shifted lobbying efforts to state legislatures because of how difficult it’s become to get legislation through Congress. That’s created a different power dynamic, especially when one party controls state government.
Still, Rep. Jake Highfill, a Republican who chairs the Iowa House local government committee, doesn’t buy it.
He said cities and counties are creations of the state government, and that the state’s home rule amendment grants them the power to do what they want — unless the state government tells them otherwise.
“We have the right to do that,” Highfill said. “I don’t believe there is a giant uptick or anything else.”
Highfill said minimum wage, for example, falls under the state’s interest in commerce and labor law. He said that the immigration enforcement bill compels local jurisdictions to follow federal law, so local officials should take concerns to their congressional delegation instead of state representatives.
Rep. Art Staed, the ranking Democrat on Highfill’s committee, said Republicans are “emboldened” by their control of state government and have adopted a “do what you want” attitude in matters of governance. He said there are more efforts now than in the past to pre-empt local authority.
“That’s troubling,” Staed said. “I think divided government was a good thing at preventing that.”
Last year’s statewide ban on local minimum wage increases was openly described as “the pre-emption bill,” according to Lucas Beenken, public policy specialist for the Iowa Association of Counties. The law blocked efforts by a handful of counties to raise wages for workers, which in Iowa is set at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour for most workers.
“That sends a pretty clear message,” Beenken said.
This year’s immigration bill took pre-emption further by adding a stiff penalty for noncompliance. The law requires jails to hold prisoners, who face no state criminal charges, past the time they would have been released if they receive an immigration detainer requests from the federal government. If a local government fails to do so, they could lose all their state funding.
“They’re in a very tough situation,” Beenken said. “They have to choose between incurring those additional costs — the unfunded mandate — and possibly violating an individual’s constitutional rights or causing their county to lose state funding.”
Mark Pertschuk, director of the California-based nonprofit Grassroots Change, which tracks pre-emption legislation nationally, said Iowa’s practices put it in the “middle of the pack.” In the past, national reports on pre-emption showed Iowa left more issues to local officials.
Pertschuk argued pre-emption laws hurt local political engagement.
“It creates this cynicism and disengagement that really, really erodes democracy in a very dangerous way,” he said.