Opinion: The challenge of abiding by home rule

Recently as I drove my Silent Generation father-in-law on an out-of-town trip along I-70, he made a peculiar observation. “I never noticed this before but there’s plastic bags everywhere. My gosh. It looks terrible!”

Peculiar because he’s typically not a passenger-seat guy. Peculiar because he’s the last person I expect to hear pseudo-environmentally conscious commentary from. But knowing he’s a person who takes seriously where his local tax dollars go and his community’s appearance, combined with a newfound passenger-seat status, I took heed of a lesson in local self-determination enshrined in the Kansas Constitution otherwise known as “home rule.”

Put simply: his right to solve a local problem locally.

This session, the Kansas Legislature attempted another end run on home rule with House Bill 2446: a wide-ranging, but straightforward, one-page bill designed to prohibit cities and counties from regulating “auxiliary containers” — plastic straws, bags, cups, packages, bottles, etc., for the transportation, consumption or protection of food, beverage, or merchandise.

Two weeks ago, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the “plastic bag” bill, stunningly without a single reference to preserving the environment, spoiling waterways, toxicity of microplastics in our bloodstream, emitting greenhouse gases, or the Great Pacific garbage patch that’s grown bigger than Kansas itself.

Instead, she reserved her 45-word veto to extoll the virtues of local control and accountability enshrined in the 1961 home rule amendment to the Kansas Constitution where “powers and authority granted cities pursuant to this section shall be liberally construed for the purpose of giving cities the largest amount of self-government.”

Cities no longer had to gain approval from the state for their laws. Local government was given power to reflect their citizens’ needs and values free from state interference.​

The logic of home rule presupposes a municipality is unique — what makes sense for Dodge City may not make sense for Manhattan — and will ultimately act in its own best interest lest people vote with their feet or for new representation.

The challenge of home rule is abiding by it.

Effective March 1, the City of Lawrence determine its best interest as it implemented a ban on single-use plastic bags, the first of its kind in the state. Lawrence leaders affirmed their desire to think globally and act locally about the 29-36 million discarded plastic bags proliferating annually in the nooks and crannies of their city.

Conversely, passage of HB 2446 would have nullified their residents’ wishes and the wishes of any other city’s residents to self-govern.

Slopes are slippery. If the Legislature begins to assert their voice for local issues in one city, it becomes easier the next day to assert their voice on a local issue important to your city. Previous or current slippage into local control includes smoking in public places, age of tobacco purchasers, political sign regulations, zoning to increase housing supply, solar roof panels, homeless camping and controlling pet populations.

Maybe some of this is dawning on legislators.

Maybe they’re realizing a statewide ban eliminates enough discarded bags annually in Kansas to circle the earth six times.

Or that it’s harder to escape the irony of condemning federal intrusion into state affairs when you do the same to local affairs.

— Bill Fiander is a lecturer of university courses specializing in public administration, urban planning, and state/local government. He is the former planning and development director for the City of Topeka.


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