Commentary: Utah Republicans pre-empt local control for business control

Floors cannot be raised for the common good, but ceilings must be lowered for the corporate good.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, jokes that his phone has been giving him a massage all day as wisecracking discussion ensues on SB172 by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, that pushes to allow barbers to legally perform brief neck massages on customers.

Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy, has helpfully exposed a misapprehension I had hitherto been laboring under about the bedrock of Republican political philosophy.

Previously, observing how the Utah Republican establishment incessantly inveighs against meddling in Utah’s local affairs by the federal government, I had assumed a staunch Republican commitment to the subsidiarity principle: the supremacy and sanctity of local control.

Imagine my shock, then, upon hearing of Buxton’s bill, SB218, to ban cities from banning or otherwise regulating plastic bags and other wasteful, throwaway items – that is, Utah state government pre-empting cities’ local control.

I quickly emailed Buxton to express my own brand of democratic indignation over this monstrous intrusion into local affairs.

Buxton replied, calmly explaining, “The reasoning behind this bill is to ensure that a patchwork of policies doesn’t crop up across the state and create a burdensome regulatory mess for business.”

He then enjoined me to consider a hypothetical, consisting in the headache and cost a “patchwork” of plastic bans could cause McDonald’s, which cost would in turn harm “low income families who may not be able to afford increased food prices that could easily result from patchwork policy.”

That’s right: city-level plastic bans will burden precarious mom-and-pop businesses like McDonald’s and exacerbate hunger in Utah!

The use of the word, “mess,” is ironic, as the problem at hand is precisely a literal mess caused by business’ careless distribution of throwaway plastics – a mess that we, taxpayers and municipalities, must then pay to clean up. Banning things like plastic bags (which are no longer allowed in Salt Lake recycling bins) makes both environmental and fiscal sense for cities.

To the question of local control, Buxton corrected the widespread error about Republicans’ fidelity to the principle:

“Local government,” he wrote, “can become too large and intrusive just as much as state government and federal government, it’s just harder for it to do so.”

Intrusive, that is, to business’ bottom line.

While SB218 ultimately failed to pass, the take-home lesson here – as well as with bills like Mike Noel’s HB135 to strip cities of the right to regulate and restrict development in the watersheds upon which they depend, and numerous others – is that the principle animating Republican governance is not local control, but business control; not aversion to big-government, but full-throated embrace of big government against small governments if such is the best means to advance business interests.

Once this principle is understood, the seemingly contradictory and hypocritical transforms into the perfectly consistent, and state pre-emption of local government becomes not just acceptable but necessary to suspend or lower standards that might impinge on business profits (e.g., environmental protections, minimum wage hikes).

Floors cannot be raised for the common good, but ceilings must be lowered for the corporate good. Under the ideology of corporate libertarianism, there is no contradiction here, as the latter good is identical with the former. What’s good for business is self-evidently good for all.

Salt Lake City is an obvious target of the anti-local control side of this ideology, because it is one of the few jurisdictions where Republicans don’t rule. This is unacceptable to the savants in charge at the Capitol. It isn’t enough that the majority of Salt Lakers have been stripped of federal representation through gerrymandering. It’s also necessary to undermine their local lawmaking sovereignty, should it be insolently exercised in the wrong direction.

Utah’s Republican rulers have made it clear: Where local democracy conflicts with business interests, local democracy must go.

Jon Jensen

Jon Jensen, Salt Lake City, is an environmentalist who wants to deepen democracy.