The Constitution of the United States only mentions two levels of government: The federal government and “the several States.”
That means that the powers and responsibilities of cities, counties, school districts, townships, regional planning authorities and mosquito abatement districts are, by law, no more and no less than each state’s legislature agrees to give them.
But that doesn’t mean that every limitation the Utah Legislature may feel like imposing upon the several levels of local government is a good idea. Sometimes, legislation that state lawmakers may describe as limiting the overreach of a local government are themselves overreaches by the state into the rightful, if not constitutionally guaranteed, ability of local governments to set their own standards and policies and be answerable to their own constituents.
The current session of the Utah Legislature is considering a handful of such incursions. Mostly they serve little purpose other than to show off the lawmakers’ power and actually weaken the ability of the people to petition the government closest to them for a redress of grievances.
Sometimes, though, a statewide standard can be a good idea. Because its a good idea. Not because it’s statewide.
• Bad idea: A state law that would prohibit cities and counties from regulating or banning the establishment or expansion of sand and gravel pits, on the grounds that such animals are “critical infrastructure.”
The fact that the sponsor of House Bill 288, Rep. Logan Wilde, may stand to profit from the expansion of the Geneva Rock operation in Draper makes the bill that much smellier. But, even without that apparent conflict of interest, telling local authorities that they have no choice in the matter is not good government.
• Bad idea: A proposed state law — House Bill 320 — that would prohibit cities and counties from prohibiting the single-use plastic shopping bags that are befouling the environment and making waste management that much more difficult for local government to handle.
So far, only Park City and Moab — arguably among the more liberal and environmentally minded communities in the state — have passed such bag bans. Logan is among those that may follow. This is an idea whose time may or may not have come, but it should be up to the communities to make that decision.
• Bad idea: A state law that would tell local units of government that they could not take a position on federal land use decisions without first seeking the by-your-leave of the state.
The proposal — Rep. Carl Albrecht’s House Bill 78 — has taken on special importance now that the San Juan County Commission has an elected majority of Democrat/Navajo members who, unlike their Republican/Anglo predecessors, really like the original idea of the Bears Ears National Monument and recently voted to support the return of the monument, covering even more acres than it was originally.
But, even without that change in the political landscape, locally elected officials can’t be really representing their constituents if they aren’t allowed to have a voice in such matters. Something most Utah lawmakers were in favor of when those locally elected officials were Republicans.
• Not a bad idea: A bill that would push cities to consider the need for more — a lot more — affordable housing projects in the state as the plan and build.
The measure — Sen. Jake Anderegg’s Senate Bill 34 — would give communities several options for fulfilling that obligation, something that most urban areas are moving toward anyway. It would also put some of the state’s money where it’s mouth is, which matters at least as much as any city’s plans.
• Good idea: Senate Bill 155, a proposal from Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, would mandate that every animal shelter in the state make easily accessible to the public their standard reports on how many animals were received, adopted, euthanized or otherwise died.
This is a basic open records measure, which is generally a good idea. In an age when nearly every government record is born and lives in a computer, making such things available to the public should be automatic.