In state government, nobody cares about "local control"

Delegate Buddy Fowler graciously made a visit to our campus yesterday; I always appreciate it when local officials come and talk to our students. (I like students to hear "real people" tell them the same things I tell them, so they know I'm not just making this stuff up.) Fowler gave an update on the latest legislative session, and it lined up well with the reports I've seen from other Republican state officials.

One bill that Fowler and the GOP is touting, though, seems odd: HB 1608, a measure that blocked local government from instituting a "wage floor" when hiring contractors. Proponents call this wage floor a "living wage," a national idea (and movement) that asks governments to set high minimum wages to enable working people to better support themselves and their families. The GOP is generally opposed to minimum wages, so it might be understandable for them to create a law that stops local government from instituting one.

But wait a minute - this bill blocks local government from doing what they want to do. Don't Republicans support "local control?" Well, not exactly.

Keeping decision-making at the local level is an idea that's a big part of the conservative tradition. One classic statement of American conservatism came from Russell Kirk, whose 1953 classic The Conservative Mind influenced a generation of Republicans. Kirk later consolidated his ideas into 10 conservative principles, which included this as #8:

Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.... In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. Some of these functions are carried out by local political bodies, others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community. But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger.

So national Republicans should favor states' rights, and state Republicans should favor the rights of localities, right?

Again, not exactly. At the national level, observers often talk about "situational federalism," the tendency of conservatives AND progressives to favor states' rights only when the outcome is one they prefer for other ideological or political reasons. As libertarian author David Boaz noted in 2012, a concern for state prerogatives never stopped Republicans from supporting federal directives on marriage law, education mandates, and marijuana prohibition.

The same thing happens on the state level, where localities' interests are also superseded by supposedly conservative state officials. And so we see Republicans in Wisconsin, Texas, and New Hampshire all issue laws that interfere with local governments.

The Republicans in Virginia are no different. Local control is a nice idea, but it will be dropped whenever a more important concern for their constituents -- in this case, business interests like the state's general contractors -- make it inconvenient. As MSNBC put it late last year, Republicans "love local control, except when they don't."