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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Lansing Republicans drop the mantle of ‘local control’

Disposable plastic bags. Gun control. Sanctuary cities. Minimum wage hikes. An explosion of Airbnb rentals.

It’s an eclectic list of concerns. Each addressed by Michigan towns and cities through their locally elected officials. What they now have in common: A Republican legislature or attorney general who has stepped in to say: “No, you can’t.”

Lately, the flurry of edicts coming from Lansing blocking cities and towns from crafting their own laws has raised the question: What happened to the GOP mantra that local government knows best?

One critic sees hypocrisy.

“Republicans in Michigan have for decades talked about the need for local control, especially when it comes to school systems,” said Washtenaw County Commissioner Andy LaBarre, D-Ann Arbor. Now, he said: “The minute you exercise that local control, if it offends any of their constituent groups, they take it away.”

LaBarre’s ire was fueled by a 10-cent fee on disposable plastic bags that Washtenaw was to impose this year as an environmental conservation measure. That was before Republicans pushed through a state law late in 2016 to stop it.

“You can’t have it both ways,” he said of the GOP.

A former advisor to GOP. Gov. Rick Snyder told Bridge he believes the Republican party, which now controls all branches of state politics, is drifting from its traditional conservative moorings.

“I think it has changed over time,” said Bill Rustem, former director of strategy for Snyder. “It’s a relatively new thing, (the GOP) telling local governments they can’t do things they traditionally have had the right to do.”

Historically, Rustem said, major issues like pollution and large infrastructure projects were the agreed province of state and federal government. Matters with no compelling statewide interest were most often left to local government. In Michigan, Republicans have consistently promoted local control, most notably in the context that local schools know best how to educate their students.

In 2015, for instance, Bridge documented how proposals for rigorous statewide standards for teacher evaluation collided with Republican demands for local control.

Which makes Lansing’s recent activism to restrict local decisionmaking seem like a reversal of the old orthodoxy.

It was Democrats who are usually stereotyped as the party of big government, always looking to distant bureaucrats for solutions to local problems. Republicans, by contrast, historically stood for the notion that locally elected officials (that is, those officeholders closest to the people) best understood the priorities and values of their communities.

Lately, Republicans in Lansing have found reasons to tell communities what they can and can’t do. And sometimes that’s necessary, according to one Republican lawmaker, even for a party that often rails against big government.  

“It becomes a state issue if something is being done that makes it hard for the entire state, such as harming tourism,” said state Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Bedford Township.

Sheppard recently sponsored a measure that would block Michigan communities from limiting residential short-term vacation rentals. The bill came in response to efforts by some towns to restrict vacation rental businesses like Airbnb, based on complaints by residents that their neighborhoods were being disrupted rowdy vacationers.   

Sheppard said there are times when state standards should trump local laws.

“If a local community tries to restrict the option of people coming to the state to enjoy what we have here, then I think it’s time for the Legislature to look at remedies,” he said. “It goes with commerce. It goes with industry. It goes with what’s best for the entire state.”

A more aggressive state government

While there has always been a push and pull between the powers of state and local government, an official with the Michigan Municipal League said he has observed an uptick in efforts by the state to rein in local authority in recent years.

“I would say about a third of the work we do on the legislative side is related to the issue of (state laws) limiting or restricting local control,” said Chris Hackbarth, the municipal league’s director of state and federal affairs.  

The municipal league has voiced strong concern over some of these issues, opposing Sheppard’s bill on short-term rentals as well as a controversial “sanctuary city” measure pushed by Lansing Republicans that would require local police cooperate with federal agents on immigration enforcement.

Hackbarth said community efforts such as those by residents to restrict Airbnb rentals in their neighborhoods are “at the core of local government. We will fight all the way.”

State Republicans have often found support from large business groups, who complain that a patchwork of local laws – such as Washtenaw County’s plastic bag ordinance – can make it difficult to do business across the state.  

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, for instance, was a key supporter of a 2015 measure blocking cities and townships from enacting “living wage” pay standards – normally several dollars higher than minimum wage – for companies that do business in those communities.

Wendy Block

“We generally favor local control,” said Wendy Block, a lobbyist for the Michigan Chamber. “It becomes problematic when local units of government get involved in employment decisions. We’d like one set of rules for our employers to comply with.”

Of course, state and local frictions are hardly unique to Michigan. There are battles around the country over everything from local bans on fracking to a proposed Montana measure that would ban cities from penalizing texting while driving. Often, they are faceoffs between Republican-controlled state legislatures and cities under Democratic control. As noted in a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Republicans in 24 states control both legislative chambers and the governor’s seat, while Democratic mayors hold office in nearly four-fifths of the nation’s 40 largest cities.

In perhaps the most high-profile state-local clash, North Carolina overturned  a law passed by the city of Charlotte allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. The Republican-dominated legislature partially repealed that law later after facing a backlash from companies that refused to do business in North Carolina.

In Michigan, meanwhile, the fight goes on across multiple fronts.

Short-term vacation rentals

In April, the Lake Michigan resort city of Grand Haven approved an ordinance restricting the number of short-term rentals – including those booked through the popular website Airbnb – in two residential neighborhoods. The decision followed months of community discussion, including complaints by some homeowners that rapid growth of vacation rentals in single-family homes was altering the character of the neighborhoods.

Pat McGinnis

City Manager Pat McGinnis told Bridge the local ordinance reflected what many homeowners told City Hall they wanted done.

“Would you want a short-term rental on either side of you if you are in a house you invested your life savings in?” McGinnis asked. “There is a line that you cross when a neighborhood no longer feels like a single-family neighborhood. It feels like a hotel district.”

Other communities have enacted similar restrictions. The Spring Lake Township board in Ottawa County voted in December to limit the number of days a home in a residential district could be rented to the public. Traverse City limits vacation rentals to commercial districts, while St. Joseph restricts rentals to a couple zoning districts.

A pair of bills now pending in Lansing would end those kind of restrictions in all residential districts.

Introduced in April by Rep. Sheppard and Sen. Joe Hune, R-Hamburg Township, they have the backing of Michigan Association of Realtors, which represents the state real estate industry. Since 2012, Sheppard has reported $15,348 in contributions from the Michigan Association of Realtors PAC. Hune reported $1,250 from the PAC for the 2015-16 election cycle.

Other Realtor organizations have also criticized restrictions on vacation rentals.

“This is a major intrusion into the rights of private property owners,” Dale Zahn, CEO of the West Michigan Lakeshore Association of Realtors said in an article in the Grand Haven Tribune. “Enough is enough. What's next? How many fast-food restaurants? How many banks? In what locations?”

Sanctuary cities

On June 7, the state House Local Government committee approved bills that would prevent  cities from passing immigrant-friendly practices that often identify a community as a “sanctuary city.” The bills were approved by a 7-4 vote with unanimous Republican support.

While no Michigan city has formal sanctuary city status, Hackbarth, of the Michigan Municipal League, said Ann Arbor, Detroit and Lansing have “welcoming” policies toward immigrants.

In general terms, that means local law enforcement officers in these cities will not seek to enforce immigration laws in the course of their duty, unless a subject is arrested for a separate, serious crime.

At a state hearing on the bills, Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton said they would discourage immigrants from cooperating with police when they investigate crime.

“Most of the police service leaders recognize that fighting crime occurs with strong and trusting relationships with community members, who work as witnesses and help develop solutions to neighborhood problems,” he said.

The bills would prohibit cities from enacting laws that would limit their cooperation with federal immigration officials and allow fines up to $7,500 against any local official who knowingly violates the law.

Jim Runestad

The GOP sponsor of the House bill told Bridge he sees the issue another way.

“It makes cities less safe to not cooperate with (federal immigration agents) get rid of some individuals who are in some cases very violent,” said Rep. Jim Runestad of White Lake.

“Immigration is the purview of the feds. It is not the purview of local government to make immigration laws.”

Living and prevailing wage

At least a half-dozen Michigan communities have “living wage” laws – requiring employers that do business with the local government to pay workers an amount sufficient to meet basic living expenses, typically several dollars above the state minimum wage for 2017 of $8.90 an hour.

For example, Washtenaw County set its living hourly wage for 2016-17 at $12.93 for workers with health insurance, $14.43 for workers without insurance. Ann Arbor, Detroit, Ferndale, Warren, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township have similar laws. Supporters say the laws benefit the community by making it easier for local workers to afford housing and be self-supporting.

But a bill signed into law in 2015 by Gov. Rick Snyder bars more local governments from passing these wage laws, and from passing minimum-wage laws above the state level. It also bans cities from forcing employers to provide paid or unpaid sick leave.

That state law was also backed by the Michigan Chamber, which argued that varying municipal wage and benefit requirements make it difficult for companies to operate in different communities.

“Potentially, 1,800 different local units of government could have adopted their own regulation,” said Block, the chamber lobbyist.

The sponsor of the bill, (now former) state Rep. Earl Poleski, R-Jackson, echoed that argument, saying the state should step in when local standards may disrupt business.

“It’s a better idea to have a consistent rule with regard to wages and benefits,” he said. “In the long run, that protects business and employees.”

But Ferndale’s mayor, Dave Coulter, a Democrat, said he sees it otherwise, arguing that his city’s living wage mandate has been good for the community.

“We have not heard from business in Ferndale that this is an unfair burden,” Coulter said. “In fact, we have found that a living wage has been a helpful tool that assures the economic development we are generating actually translates to better wages for the folks who are doing the work.”

Salary histories

The Michigan Chamber also backs a state Senate bill that would prevent cities and towns from barring employers from asking certain questions in a job interview. New York City approved such an ordinance in May, banning employers from asking applicants about their salary history. Supporters contend it would close the gender wage gap by helping ensure women with low-paying job histories wouldn’t continue to receive low salary offers.

There’s no such law in Michigan. But bill sponsor state Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, said he wants to make sure some version of New York’s law doesn’t happen here.

“This is intended to ensure that local municipalities are not meddling in the interests of employers and employees, in the interview process in this case.

“The intent is that we don’t end up with a regulatory patchwork across Michigan. It needs to be managed on a state level.”

Cigarette sales to young adults

In Ann Arbor, city commissioners voted 9-2 last August to make the city the first in Michigan to ban the sale of cigarettes to individuals under 21. It joined more than 200 cities in 16 states with similar bans. Currently, state law requires cigarette buyers to be at least 18.

Washtenaw County Public Health officials, citing evidence from other cities, said the Ann Arbor measure would cut down on youth smoking and “save lives.”

A report on youth smoking in the American Journal of Public Health cited a study in Needham, Mass., which raised the minimum age for buying cigarettes to 21 in 2005, the first to do so. A subsequent study found that the rate of high school smokers fell by 47 percent in the four years after the measure went into effect.

But in February, GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette wrote an opinion contending that Ann Arbor’s law conflicted with a 1972 law that established “the age of majority” at 18.

While not addressing the possible health benefit of raising the smoking  age to 21 ‒ except to say it “may be a laudable goal” ‒ Schuette’s opinion said the state law trumps Ann Arbor’s ordinance.

“Any revision in this law must come from the Legislature,” his opinion stated. Schuette weighed in on the law at the request of state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge.

Dr. Jessie Kimbrough Marshall, medical director at Washtenaw County Public Health, declined to comment on Schuette’s legal analysis. But she said the Ann Arbor law was “a reasonable measure based off science. I think it’s reasonable for local communities to put measures in place to protect its public.”

Gun control

State Rep. Gary Howell, R-North Branch, wants to make sure the state has final say over gun control.

He introduced a bill in May that bars local government from enacting or enforcing any gun law that conflicts with state law or the Constitution. Any local official who knowingly enforces such an ordinance would be subject to fines up to $7,500. The measure is backed by the National Rifle Association.

Howell said the impetus for his bill was “cities, villages and townships (that) have continued to enact…illegal ordinances” that he said violate the state’s generous gun laws.

“This places an unfair burden on gun owners who would have to defend themselves in court at their own expense in order to prove that any citations issued against them are invalid,” Howell testified before the House Committee on Local Government.

Howell did not return Bridge’s multiple requests for comment.

Backers of the bill point to cities like Grand Rapids, which bans the carrying of loaded firearms in any public place except by law enforcement. Then-Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said in 2013 the law may well violate state law, but said the city had no interest in changing it.

Plastic bags

In June 2016, Washtenaw County commissioners approved a 10-cent fee on disposable carryout bags at retail stores, a measure intended to reduce landfill waste and cut down on pollution from plastic.

With prodding from corporate interests, Republican legislators in Lansing acted before it could take effect.

On Dec. 28, GOP Gov. Brian Calley (filling in for Gov. Rick Snyder, who was out of state) signed a Republican-backed measure banning local governments from imposing such fees. It was approved by large GOP majorities in both the state House and Senate. Democrats opposed the bill 11-1 in the Senate and 43-4 in the House.

The bills were backed by the Michigan Restaurant Association, which saw their passage as a victory for chain restaurants and retailers.

MRA Vice President Robert O’Meara also cited the burdens association members would face from “a patchwork approach of additional regulations” in Michigan.

Grocery retail giant Meijer Inc. waded into the fray as well, its political action committee sending a $20,000 contribution to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee the same day a Senate committee began debate on the measure.

The Senate Republican Campaign Committee also got $2,500 from the PAC for the Michigan Retailers Association and $1,000 for the PAC for the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers.

“I get the politics behind it,” LaBarre, the Washtenaw County commissioner, said of the state law voiding the plastic bag fee.

“I’m not naive. I think it negates the principle of a division of power.”

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