Legislators, stop telling local governments what to do

Wow, how many times have I said that over the past quarter century?

Actually, it’s easier to count the number of times I’ve been heeded by our solons at the State House. It’s somewhere around zero.

Through most of its history, South Carolina basically didn’t have much in the way of local government, especially on the county level. Our system of government was set up to serve the slaveholding class of big landowners, who didn’t cotton to bases of power other than their own. Consequently, rather than have separately elected county government, county legislative delegations ran things on that level. Today, 41 years after the Home Rule Act, we still have vestiges of that in the Richland County Recreation Commission, and those counties where the legislators still name school board members.

Supposedly, we empowered local governments with passage of the Home Rule Act of 1975, but lawmakers have remained jealous of their prerogatives on the local level, and continue to lord it over the governments closest to the people — that is, the governments that ought to know best the needs and values of their own communities. Remember several years back when lawmakers tried to keep Columbia and other municipalities from banning smoking in public accommodations? They only backed down when the Supreme Court made them.

Here’s where I could go off on another screed about subsidiarity, but I won’t. Or maybe just a bit…

I will state the basic idea: Governmental decisions should be made by the smallest, least centralized level that is competent to handle the matter at hand.

So… if the people of a given community want to allow anyone who says he or she is of a certain gender use the restroom consistent with that identity, that person should be allowed to do so.

And if communities that care deeply about marine life want to ban plastic grocery bags, they should be allowed to do so.

Lee Bright thinks otherwise. He’s wrong.


Jay Lucas

Speaker Jay Lucas, whom I respect a lot more than I do Lee Bright, is also wrong on this point — although his position is more defensible. He has a plant in his district that makes such plastic bags, and it employs a lot of his constituents.

You might not think that’s a defensible position, but I disagree. It’s an essential feature of representative democracy that all voters should be empowered to elect representatives who stand up for their interest (although one always hopes that the larger public interest should prevail).

It’s not inherently wrong for a lawmaker to stand up for jobs in his district. That doesn’t mean the other 169 have to go along with him.

No, the problem isn’t that the speaker is protecting jobs; it’s that he’s telling people who live in communities other than his how they should arrange their local affairs.

One could of course argue that under the principle of subsidiarity, balancing the economy vs. the environment is more properly a state rather than a local matter. And that makes some sense.

But I tend to see this more as a part of a long and disturbing trend in South Carolina.

20 thoughts on “Legislators, stop telling local governments what to do

  1. Doug Ross

    “Governmental decisions should be made by the smallest, least centralized level that is competent to handle the matter at hand.”

    Waiting for the first example of that happening. Small? Decentralized? COMPETENT? Pick any government acronym and tell me how that works. IRS, TSA, DHEC, VA, FEMA… oh, you mean smaller organizations at the state level like DHEC, DOT, DSS? or do you mean leaner, ethical entities like the Richland County Recreation Commission, Richland County Elections Commission, or any number of school boards in terrible school districts? The beauty of government incompetence is that it scales to any size.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I mean city and county councils. The people elected to make local decisions.

      The Richco Recreation Commission and Election Commission are both illustrations of state legislators insisting on running things instead of allowing local elected officials to do so.

      And yes, we know you prefer a Hobbesian state of nature to any government that exists anywhere…

      1. Lynn Teague

        Amen. The county councils should be able to manage salaries and other costs and demand accountability from the elections office and other county level offices.

    2. Jeff Mobley

      Are you really disagreeing with Brad’s expressed principle, Doug, or are you just pointing out that it isn’t sufficient, in itself, to produce reasonably efficient outcomes?

        1. Doug Ross

          Hardly, Bryan. I am only contrarian to certain people with certain world views. That makes THEM contrarian to me. Brad and I are just polar opposites in our views. What he believes works for him and what I believe has worked for me. I’m not a hermit. I get along fine with people who enjoy the same things I do. Church, sports, movies, books, politics. I have spent most of my adult career working around the country in dozens of companies and get along fine with 90% of the people I interact with.

          1. Bryan Caskey

            I know!

            In real life you’re super-great. I had a really great time going shooting with you, what a year ago? I think it’s just the written word makes it a little hard for us to see the marshmallow fluff inside your hard exterior surface.


            1. Doug Ross

              My dogs, my kids, and my wife all like me (in that order). That’s good enough for me.

      1. Doug Ross

        I don’t believe it will work regardless of how it is structured. There is too much evidence to the “contrary”.

        Show me where it works. I can show you more cases where it doesn’t. The best solution is the smallest government possible, not a large number of small government entities. There are school boards across the state that are about as small an elected entity as you can create and many of them are terrible at what they do.

        1. Winston Churchill

          It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all those others that have been tried.

        2. Doug Ross

          The “right” size of any government function is the one where tasks are completed efficiently and with the lowest level of wasted resources.

          The SC DOT can’t manage it’s responsibility for the roads. Could 40+ county level road departments do better? Doubtful. Two school districts in Richland County is one too many. So in that case we want a higher level of government than we have now.

          One government function that does seem to work well is the National and State Park departments. In each case, one never feels like they are not doing their job.

        3. Jeff Mobley

          I completely agree that you can find corruption and incompetence, and thoughtlessness at every level of government. But this doesn’t really serve as an argument against Brad’s stated ideal of having decisions made at the “smallest, least centralized level”. Take the schools, for example. If your local school is terrible, do you blame the principle, the school board, the county, the state Board of Education, the state Superintendent, the Education Oversight committee, the general assembly, the governor, or all of the above? As is the case with many issues, responsibility is spread out across several levels of government and many different people.

          I think Brad’s principle is important, not because officials at the local level are any less capable of corruption or stupidity, but because they have a better chance than officials at the state or national level of being held accountable for their performance by those whom their decisions affect. Unfortunately, lines of accountability can be muddled even at the local level, when county councils have to allocate funds to commissions full of people they didn’t appoint, or when there are mechanisms that allow a few locally elected legislators to appoint people to statewide commissions or committees, but no mechanisms for them to be removed. This stuff should be cleaned up, but again, it doesn’t mean Brad’s statement about decentralization is wrong.

          Now, in addition to the concept of decentralization, you need some absolute limits on what government at any level can do, in terms of power and scope, like the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. And within those limits, there’s the whole discussion of size, that is, of how much should government even attempt to do.

          I think it’s fair to say, Doug, that you and Brad disagree on the question of the optimal size of government much of the time. But again, he’s not wrong in the statement you quoted.

  2. Bryan Caskey

    “Speaker Jay Lucas, whom I respect a lot more than I do Lee Bright, is also wrong on this point — although his position is more defensible.”

    I don’t see it explicitly in your piece – what is Lucas’ position? (Honest question, not a trap.) 🙂

    1. Lynn Teague

      He is protecting a local industry in his district, which is not an evil thing to do. However, the other side of the issue, protecting what little home rule we have as well as addressing a genuine problem with plastic pollution, is much stronger.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        Okay, so Lucas is against a small municipality passing a law that essentially says “No plastic bags at grocery stores.” Do I have that right?

  3. Michael Bramson

    I had a professor in a political science course back in college in Philadelphia who thought that Philadelphia should be split up into at least five smaller cities in order to better serve specific communities. I have never gotten on board with that particular plan, but I think about it a lot. Certainly there are states that might make their residents a lot happier if they were to splinter. It serves a similar practical purpose to devolving authority to lower levels of government.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      When you start splitting up cities, that’s usually going a bit too far — you’re going toward balkanization, not subsidiarity. Philadelphia is a richly diverse city, and I’d hate to see it busted up. It would be too easy for itto split according to race or class, and that would not be good.

      Subsidiarity isn’t about “smaller is always better.” It’s more about right-sizing.

      For instance, I’m with Doug (or perhaps, since I’ve been writing about it for a quarter-century, Doug’s with me) on consolidating school districts, so that there’s no more than one per county.

      And… I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that it’s probably best that the fundamental responsibility for education lie on the state level. We’ve got counties that just don’t have the resources to have good schools without some help. When it comes to education, the federal government is too big and many local school boards are too small (or too poor). I think states need to take the lead, particularly when it comes to improving poor, rural schools…

      1. Doug Ross

        I’m not sure I would support the state owning the fundamental responsibility for education. Trying to achieve parity in education across the state is an impossible task. At best, we’d drive education toward mediocrity or deliver even more of the best students to private schools. The three things the state can do is enforce accountability that goes beyond useless testing, provide opportunity through grants and vouchers to parents in the worst performing districts, and reward the best teachers not based on certifications and degrees but on actual in-class results.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        To be clear… I don’t propose eliminating the local element. People should still get to choose their local school boards, which should have real power in running schools day to day.

        What I’m saying, though, is that it should be understood that the state (as is laid out in our state constitution) has the ultimate responsibility, and needs to step in when the locals can’t get the job done…

Comments are closed.