Iowa increasingly usurping local self-governance

From minimum wage to gun rights, pre-emption on the rise nationally

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signs a 50th Anniversary of Municipal Home Rule proclamation Tuesday at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. (Scott Morgan/freelance)
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signs a 50th Anniversary of Municipal Home Rule proclamation Tuesday at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. (Scott Morgan/freelance)

As Iowa celebrates the half-century milestone of cities being granted the right to self-govern, some local and state officials fear a recent onslaught of legislation chipping away at it threatens local control provisions.

State regulations have superseded city rules for 50 years and county rules for 40, but as a Home Rule state, Iowa’s Constitution provides those local entities a level of authority over matters specific to their own communities.

However, Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, a longtime proponent of local control, is among those who say local provisions are being whittled away by the Iowa Capitol as the GOP assumed control of the lawmaking agenda after the 2016 elections.

Those levels of pre-emption show no sign of slowing down, he added.

“Every time you pass a state law, in some way it pre-empts local authority. But recently I think it’s getting more egregious,” Jacoby said. “I think it’s going to be one of the underlying themes of the entire session.”

Minimum wage rules among those banned

The 2017 legislative session saw Iowa lawmakers pass rules amending, limiting or banning local control on such issues as minimum wage increases, fireworks sales ordinances, project labor agreements for public construction projects, plastic grocery bags restrictions and certain firearms rules.

Already this session, which began Jan. 8, bills have been proposed or introduced to enact statewide rules for traffic cameras and lease-purchase agreements for public projects.

Proponents of such bills say statewide regulations are necessary to prevent a confusing patchwork of rules throughout Iowa or to stifle dangerous precedents created by a few rogue counties.


Others have argued that local elected officials know what’s best for their constituents and, by pre-empting city and county efforts, legislators are limiting innovation created at the local level.

Pre-emptive limits to local control are present in every legislative session, said Alan Kemp, executive director with the Iowa League of Cities. However, he said that pre-emption appears to be on the rise.

“In any given year, we as an organization are sort of always on guard for attempts to pre-empt local authority,” he said. “I think a lot of observers would agree that we’re at a period of time where, even nationwide, legislatures have been more willing to pre-empt local authority than they may have been in the past.”

Study: Pre-emption under both parties

While Iowa’s increase in pre-emption seems spurred by the state’s 2016 swing to Republican control, Kemp said pre-emption isn’t solely a GOP trait.

“It’s easy to sort of take a shot at Republicans, because that’s who’s in charge in Iowa. But if you look at it on a national basis, there are states where Democrats have control of the governor’s office and the chambers — they also have seen pre-emption,” he said.

A 2017 report by the National League of Cities, entitled “City Rights in an Era of Pre-emption,” found that single party dominance played a key role in an increase in pre-emption efforts.

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

In 2016, the report found, half of all states had pre-emption rules on the minimum wage, 19 on paid leave, three on anti-discrimination, 37 on ride hailing, three on home sharing, 17 on municipal broadband and 22 on tax expenditure limitations.


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“As the politics in Washington have gotten worse and worse, much of that kind of national partisanship has started to bleed down to the state level,” said Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director of the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions. “Local control used to be a shared value of both political parties, and this idea of decision making taking place at the local level has somewhat eroded — from the political battle standpoint — in recent years.”

In addition, Bill Peterson, executive director of the Iowa State Association of Counties, said interest groups or multistate organizations often lobby for statewide rules to make doing business easier.

“If they were to try to individually do that in 99 counties or 940-some municipalities, that’s a lot of heavy lifting to get what you want accomplished,” he said. “The concern of our members is it really does undercut the ability of citizens within a community to make different decisions that are positive for their community. ... We over-escalate the need for state and federal action on issues where it would be perfectly fine if people could make those decisions.”

What’s more, some local officials have cried foul on recent state pre-emption measures, calling them punishment for local practices.

When counties like Johnson and Linn made moves to raise the minimum wage in recent years, the ordinances were struck down and banned by the state in 2017. Project labor agreements, cited as a success story for local projects by Linn County supervisors, were banned in the 2017 session. In response, the board earlier this year pursued a similar effort through a lease-purchase agreement to have more control over keeping the construction in the hands on local firms. A proposed bill in the House would take away that option, too.

“It’s absolutely punitive,” said Democratic Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson. Counties and cities “should be a place for experimentation, things should be different from one city to another or one county to another.”

Rep. Jake Highfill, R-Johnston, chair of the Local Government Committee, told The Gazette earlier this month his lease-purchase agreement bill aims to keep counties from using loopholes to sidestep state rules.

Voters change constitution

Last Tuesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation celebrating Iowa’s 50th anniversary of becoming a municipal Home Rule state.

But Iowa didn’t always have that distinction.


In 1868, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice John Forrest Dillon ruled that municipal governments could possess and exercise powers only expressly granted by the Legislature. Under Dillon’s Rule, cities could pass ordinances or rules not already allowed in Iowa Code.

However, 100 years after the creation of Dillon’s Rule, a grass-roots effort by cities pushed for local control.

“Clearly at that time, there was recognition by the citizens of the state of Iowa that this was an appropriate item to include in the constitution and it would have value in their communities,” Kemp said.

In 1968, the public agreed and more than 65 percent of Iowa voters approved an amendment to the state constitution to transition from a Dillon’s Rule state to a Home Rule state.

Ten years after cities gained home rule, voters approved another constitutional amendment, this time granting similar authority to counties.

The state maintained authority over a few key matters like taxation.

While Dillon’s Rule limited local entities to what explicitly was allowed by the state, home rule granted cities and counties the ability to self-govern on many issues, as long as that local ordinance doesn’t run counter to state law.

“I think the reason it was important was that it empowered citizens within their community, whether it be a city or a county, to be able to innovate — take actions — that they wanted to take for the benefit of their communities. As opposed to every time they might want to do something that might improve their overall community, having to go to the Iowa Legislature,” said Iowa Association of Counties’ Peterson.

School boards figuring out rules

With several bills in recent sessions focusing in on limiting home rule, lawmakers last year also began the process of giving school boards more control on local issues.


In the 2017 session, lawmakers passed three bills that expanded the powers of local school boards, including providing more flexibility with the use of some funds.

The new rules give districts the ability to “liberally construe” Iowa Code, meaning school districts can make policy decisions on matters not specifically outlined in state law.

But Lisa Bartusek, executive director of the Iowa Association of School Boards, said interpretation of those changes is murky and much of the first year since those bills passed has been spent delving into what exactly they provide.

Unlike the 1968 vote for cities and the 1978 vote for counties, last year’s bills do not represent a constitutional amendment, so the measure often has been called “Home Rule Light.”

Bartusek said that while additional amendments will be needed to provide school boards with the best balance of local control, some level of state and federal regulation will be necessary.

“I believe it will take us several years of specific amendments to the code to provide the appropriate level of authority. ... It’s not our desire to have carte blanche — no regulations,” she said. “But there are areas where more flexibility and breadth of interpretation of the law can help schools meet the actual needs of their own communities and students.”

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