Staff Columnist

No one in Iowa politics actually cares about local control

Some Iowa Democrats call for local control on mask requirements, but is that what they really want?

A sign describes the benefits mask wearing on Tuesday, April 28, 2020. State and local officials disagree about whether
A sign describes the benefits mask wearing on Tuesday, April 28, 2020. State and local officials disagree about whether city and county governments in Iowa can impose mandatory mask policies. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

In my hometown of Iowa City this week, Mayor Bruce Teague signed a proclamation ordering everyone to wear a face covering in public as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19. He’s the second Iowa mayor to enact a mask order, and other local governments are considering it.

However, the Republican governor and Democratic attorney general say local governments do not have the authority to impose mask mandates without the state’s permission. What ensues is a thorny legal and political battle over government authority.

Gov. Kim Reynolds could grant cities the authority to issue local mandates, but she chooses not too. Her critics cry foul, arguing she should honor local control.

Unfortunately, local control is a sham. Almost nobody in partisan politics actually values it as a principle, it’s just a slogan that both Republicans and Democrats slap on when it seems to fit their agenda.

Republicans in particular are supposed to support local control, for the same reason we favor a weak federal government — central planning is bad. But Republican politicians in Iowa have not practiced that for a long time.

Just in the last five years, Iowa Republicans have enacted policies to limit local control over minimum wage, school start dates, property tax hikes, rental housing regulations and guns in public buildings.

Democrats pretend to support local control if they’re out of power, but they don’t really believe in it.

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Among 24 states with Democratic governors, only Colorado, Kansas and Wisconsin have local control over mask requirements. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has said he would pursue a nationwide mandatory face covering policy, never mind state or local governments.

Masks are the issue of the day, but the same insincerity pervades most other calls for local control.

Roughly, there are two types of state-local governance in this country — “home rule” is what it sounds like and “Dillon’s rule” means localities only have powers specifically granted by the state.

Since there’s always an Iowa connection, Dillon’s rule is named for John F. Dillon, a 19th century Iowa Supreme Court justice and federal judge. His 1872 book “The Law of Municipal Corporations” was frequently cited by the courts, and his view of state supremacy over localities was widely adopted.

In 1968, Iowa adopted a constitutional amendment to transition from Dillon’s rule to home rule, giving more latitude to local governments. Most states have a hybrid system, and Iowa is identified by the National League of Cities as one of only 10 home rule states.

In general, it’s better to make decisions at the local level, where leaders can adapt to regional conditions and where regular people can actually have input. But state and federal governments also are tasked with protecting individual rights against overstepping busybodies on the town council. The line between local supremacy and individual rights is not as stark as partisans selectively make it out to be.

As a lifelong Iowa City constituent, I’m pro-mask and anti-mandates. I wear a face covering whenever I’m in indoor public spaces, and I hope the mayor’s proclamation will increase mask usage — without any citations or police encounters.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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