Iowa lawmakers clash with local representatives over home rule authority

'Someone doesn't want local governments to control their own destinies'

The Grand Stairway at the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Grand Stairway at the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

With this legislative session — and with one party in firm control of the Iowa Senate, House and governor’s office — has come a flurry of bills that aim to pre-empt local authority from cities and counties and place it squarely in Des Moines.

Among these pre-emption measures is House File 295, which would pre-empt local governments from passing minimum wage ordinances and plastic bag bans.

Two identical bills in the House and Senate — HF 265 and SSB 1170 — that would require local governments and colleges to enforce federal immigration laws.

House Study Bill 11 doesn’t necessarily pre-empt local rule, but it aims to abolish the use of compensation boards by county officials when voting on raises.

“You add all those things up and it seems to me someone doesn’t want local governments to control their own destinies,” said Bill Peterson, executive director with the West Des Moines-based Iowa State Association of Counties.


Home rule has become a point of contention in this general assembly as city and county representatives fight to maintain their ability to self-govern against state lawmakers who claim those local officials have overstepped their bounds.

Some state lawmakers have defended pre-emption bills as ways to eliminate confusing patchworks of rules that differ from one community to another, while opponents argue local governments best represent their constituents.


Alan Kemp, executive director of the Iowa League of Cities in Des Moines, which represents more than 870 Iowa communities, said this session has brought more pre-emption bills than those in the recent years.

“This is a pretty unique year and we are seeing many more bills that act to pre-empt local authority and they also go much further than they have in most recent years,” Kemp said.

Iowa is one of 10 states that employs home rule. Local governments in these states have a level of authority to implement regulations that go above and beyond state rule, unless pre-emption exists.

However, Dillon’s Rule, named for Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice John Forrest Dillon, states local governments have home rule authority unless the state or federal government says otherwise.

When supervisors in Johnson, Linn, Polk and Wapello counties passed their respective minimum wage ordinances, for example, they cited home rule authority to defend their ability to raise a countywide ordinance.

Rep. John Landon, R-Ankeny, who authored pre-emption bill HF 295, said a growing number of county minimum wage ordinances spurred the need for a statewide rule.

“This comes because of the patchwork effect that it creates on trying to operate businesses that are multi-county, that are multi-state, It makes it difficult to keep track of each and every initiative that is passed that would impact that business as far as wages or other conditions,” Landon said.

House Democratic freshman Amy Nielsen, who debated the minimum wage ordinance when she was mayor of North Liberty just months ago, said she believes those issues should stay under local supervisor and council chambers, rather than on the House and Senate floors.


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“Up here, local control ... it’s just like a romanticized idea,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen argued the state should set minimum requirements for local entities, but it shouldn’t prohibit those governments from pursuing additional measures that best fit their local needs.

“There’s much greater accountability at the local level than there is at the state level,” she said.


According to a report released last month by the National League of Cities, titled City Rights in an Era of Pre-emption, single party dominance — such as Republicans’ hold on the Iowa Senate, House and governor’s office — in many state governments is a factor to increased pre-emption efforts.

Following the 2016 election cycle, Republicans held the majority in the House, Senate and the governor’s office in 25 states. Only six states held a similar Democrat trifecta, according to the report.

“As pre-emption efforts often concern a politically divisive issue, they rely on single-party dominance to pass through state legislatures,” the report states.

“It does certainly seem to me like the gates of the dam have opened up and a lot of ideas that may have percolated in the past and have been discussed by one or two individuals are suddenly getting a lot more discussion — if not action — than maybe they would have in the past,” said Peterson of the Iowa State Association of Counties.

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