Opinion: Why is it so easy to push cities around?

Despite elections and trials and pandemics, some things don’t seem to ever change. The national government pushes around state governments, with mixed amounts of success, and state governments push around city governments, usually with near-total success. It’s consistent.

In the former case, the Republican party deserves credit (or blame) for limiting the success of the national government — which has far more financial resources than any state, as well as the Constitution’s supremacy clause on its side — when it comes to claims of authority.

For over half of a century, the modern GOP has mostly embraced a reading of American federalism focused on the power of states and state legislatures, and they’ve supported that reading with money and votes. The result has been an entrenchment of politically effective state-level “veto points,” where the states have been able to slow or stop policies pursued by nationally elected leaders, sometimes even wresting federal policy power away for the states entirely.

In the latter case, however, the Democratic Party has been far less effective in articulating an argument for defending the governing power of municipalities. Indeed, much of the time the Democratic party, often obsessively focused on the White House, fails to even take seriously city governments, counting on the support of urban votes but rarely organizing on their behalf. Mostly they insist that if just the right people can be elected nationally, then financial support for cities — who are obliged to actually run many federally mandated programs — will be plentiful.

That’s important, surely. Much of the $350 billion that President Joe Biden’s relief plan has earmarked for states and cities will assist municipalities dealing with huge revenue shortfalls. And yet, such promises of aid are of limited use when cities themselves are hamstrung by state governments in their efforts to democratically respond to and serve their own local citizens.

Across the country, states routinely threaten city governments when they attempt to reform their police departments (which those cities pay for), or encourage denser construction practices (along streets which those cities have to maintain), or act in other ways that the often Republican majorities in their state governments don’t care for. Here in Kansas, such examples are common.

In the Kansas Senate, a bill is being debated that would profoundly limit cities’ ability to explore sustainable energy alternatives to natural gas. It may not go anywhere, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it did. In 2014, the Kansas government passed a law undermining the ability of municipal governments to set local gun control ordinances. In 2015, the state sued the city of Wichita to stop it from following through on a minor local marijuana decriminalization referendum. And while in 101 Kansas counties voters can choose their own election officials, in the four largest counties in the state — with cities like Kansas City, Overland Park, Topeka and Wichita — the state government insists on making those appointments themselves.

You see this in state agencies as well, with the Kansas Board of Regents imposing standardized expectations upon Kansas’ universities and sequestering parts of their budgets, depriving them of the ability to respond to the difficulties they face in ways that will serve local students best.

It would be wonderful if defending the power of cities to serve the 75% of the Kansas population who live in them were a more important part of the state Democratic Party’s play book, or the national one’s for that matter. But in the meantime, please: At least don’t get in the way of the funds that cities need to keep doing the things they been tasked to do.

— Russell Arben Fox runs the history and politics major and the honors program at Friends University in Wichita.

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