Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice John Forrest Dillon is looking down — perhaps from atop the pillar of his namesake fountain in Davenport — reading proposals by the Republican-controlled Legislature and smiling.
Justice Dillon, for readers unaware, is credited with Dillon’s Rule: “Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control. ”
Dillon served on the Iowa high court from 1864 to 1869; the rule named after him is derived from two 1868 opinions.
In Iowa, Dillon’s Rule was shelved in 1968, when the state constitution was amended to grant cities home rule. Additional authority to cities and counties came in the following years, with the state reserving a key handful of explicit exceptions, like taxation.
Because of this, local entities can adopt ordinances and enact policies to meet local needs and wishes. Home rule allows local leaders to be more nimble in times of crisis, such as recent natural disasters or during civil unrest.
While both political parties have campaigned for local control, it has historically been a Republican rallying cry. Last fall’s campaign fodder noted how government needed to get out of the way of the people, how locals are best suited to address the needs of residents.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising such campaign rhetoric bears little resemblance to actual bill proposals by Republican lawmakers.
House Study Bill 92 takes direct aim at counties with higher minimum wages. It not only rolls back wage increases, but establishes a timestamp that prevents even a national minimum wage hike from benefiting Iowans unless lawmakers revisit the statute.
The bill prohibits counties from setting standards “regarding the sale or marketing of consumer merchandise” that differ from the state. In short, communities hoping to ease burdens on landfills by discouraging use of Styrofoam or plastic are out of luck.
Worse yet, the proposal strikes a code section that explicitly gave locals authority to enact anti-discrimination ordinances beyond existing state law. This effectively makes local civil and/or human rights codes moot.
House Study Bill 67 prohibits cities, counties and Regents’ institutions from developing certain policies and ordinances regarding federal immigration enforcement. While it’s being promoted as a strike against “sanctuaries,” it wholly ignores the legal liabilities that led to the separation ordinances and policies.
Collectively and individually, these new restrictions inhibit the ability of citizens to advance innovative ideas, bring awareness to ongoing local needs and promote values-based decision-making.
Each Republican sponsoring the bills will gladly stand and speak against federal overreach. They can wax poetic about how Washington needs to be less authoritarian, about the benefit of letting states’ ideas “bubble up.” They’re much less interested in their own hypocrisy.
With all due respect to Dillon and his smile, Iowans do better when Des Moines steps aside.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on February 11, 2017. Photo credit: Stephen Mally/The Gazette