OPINION — An article published last month highlighted frustrations felt on the part of St. George elected officials in response to proposed statewide legislation that would limit the city’s ability to regulate. The expressed concerns, while understandable, reflect a common misunderstanding of the relationship between cities and the state.
Several bills considered by the State Legislature would have limited the ability of cities to pass or enforce ordinances dealing with short-term rentals, beekeeping, medical marijuana, business licensure, and other issues. According to the article, council members complained that these measures “would erode the city’s ability to regulate these items on the local level, mirroring the ongoing state-level frustrations against alleged federal overreach.”
While we share the concerns about federal overreach, the relationship between St. George and the State Legislature is completely different—and therefore the city’s complaints are misguided.
Federal overreach is a valid concern to the extent that the federal government exceeds the authority it was delegated by the several states under the U.S. Constitution; the creature cannot exceed its creators. Utah cities, however, did not create the state. Rather, St. George and other cities are political subdivisions of the state—creatures themselves that receive their authority from the Legislature.
“We can’t have [the state] dictating what we’re doing in our town,” councilman Joe Bowcutt is reported to have said. Similarly, proposed state regulation led councilman Jimmie Hughes to say, “This is exactly what they’re complaining is happening on the federal level, and that’s the way we see it, and that’s the way we will portray it to the voters.”
What should be portrayed to voters is reality, rather than incorrect perception. The State Legislature has in many instances limited a city’s ability to regulate an activity; because the power to regulate is extended by the state to the cities, that power can be altered, limited, or altogether withheld.
For example, counties and cities are prohibited by state law from enacting ordinances that prohibit nursing mothers from being in locations where they otherwise have the right to be. Cities are also denied the ability to prohibit the ownership, sale, or transport of firearms. State law also restricts their ability to prohibit their possession of firearms in the individual’s home, vehicle, or other property.
Utah law also prohibits cities from regulating the distribution of alcoholic beverages where state law already addresses the issue, unless “expressly granted” the authority to do so. The Legislature has removed any ability to exclude charter schools through land use ordinances, indicating that they are a permitted use in any zoning district. And just a few years ago, the legislature passed a bill preventing local governments from enacting “an ordinance or policy that limits or prohibits a law enforcement officer, local official, or local government employee from communicating or cooperating with federal officials regarding the immigration status of a person within the state.”
In most cases, the Legislature has broadly granted to cities the authority to regulate a number of issues, and it is perhaps this longstanding permissive arrangement that has led St. George officials, along with others, to chafe whenever that authority is modified. But this power has been curtailed in the past, and it’s well within the legislature’s purview to do so in the future as deemed appropriate.
While it’s within the state’s authority to restrict the actions of a local government, some would argue that it is generally a bad idea. As Mayor Jon Pike said in the same meeting, “The idea is that the government that is the closest is the best.” But this idea is also false; the proximity of control is not an inherent virtue. Some of the most pernicious policies can be enacted through a simple majority of a few city council members.
Local control is not an ideal—liberty is. And to the extent that city officials arbitrarily limit one’s rights and refuse to budget, it’s perfectly acceptable, and at times necessary, to circumvent their control and petition the state legislature to modify or withdraw that authority.
Submitted by Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, Lehi
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