There is a tug-of-war going on at the Idaho Legislature right now over the meaning and importance of “local control.” One thing is obvious: Those two words apparently have drastically different meanings to different legislators.
Usually “local control” is the chant of die-hard conservatives, complaining at decision-making done in marble halls far from the communities and geography in which these decisions will hit the ground. The most valid of these arguments is that state and national regulations designed to achieve a public good may be based on norms that prove untrue in discrete localities. The U.S. EPA’s oxides of nitrogen (NOx) rule was a classic example: In the early ’90s some atmospheric chemists discovered that the EPA’s NOx controls were actually making the air in some communities unhealthier. The Clean Air Act was amended to give certain local jurisdictions more discretion over how to prioritize emission limits.
This year another definition of “local control” has arisen that has nothing to do with the failings of centralized regulation. Its argument goes something like this: We will build large agencies of state and federal government, staffed with professionals in fields of health, safety, economic and scientific expertise, to regulate for the public good, and if they fail to do so, we will empower local jurisdictions lacking any expertise or professional staff to implement the otherwise rejected regulation out of pure political popularity. According to this novel definition, we have a Labor Department in Boise fully capable and authorized to advise the state on minimum wage laws. But no, we will give that decision to the city of Athol.
Idaho has a Department of Environmental Quality staffed with hundreds of trained and skilled professionals. Imagine, however, citing “local control” to bypass the professional judgment of the agency responsible for Idaho’s solid waste laws and regulations, and instead we hand key commercial waste stream decisions to the city council of Leadore. Tipping the conservative’s definition of local control on its head, the new chant, this time from the other side of the political spectrum, is simply for more regulation ... if not from federal or state government, then from units of government that are far less specialized or staffed to craft (much less enforce) complicated new rules for Idahoans to live by.
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The charters of our liberties are our state and national constitutions. Under those documents, it is the state of Idaho to whom Idahoans have granted the power to tax, to condemn and to police for the common good. Cities and counties share in that authority only “as delegated by the State.” In the balancing between individual freedom and a necessary regulation that should occur in any and all governmental actions, it is speaking out of both sides of its mouth for the state to side with individual freedom on a statewide basis, but let the residents of Declo fend for themselves.
Trent L. Clark, of Soda Springs, is a former chairman of the Idaho Republican Party.