Yesterday Governor Synder signed his controversial budget bill into law. It’s interesting to think about the law in relation to Richard Thompson Ford’s Tuesday piece in Slate, in which he argues that the law’s emergency financial manager component is not unconstitutional:
In 1907, the Supreme Court decided, in Hunter v. Pittsburgh, that under the Constitution local governments are nothing more than “convenient agencies for exercising … such powers as may be entrusted to them” by the state. As a result, “the state may modify or withdraw all such power, may take without compensation such property, hold it for itself, or vest it with other agencies, expand or contract the territorial area, unite the whole or part of it with another municipality, repeal the charter and destroy the corporation … with or without the consent of the citizens, or even against their protest.”
Why isn’t this a violation of the well-established constitutional principle of one-person, one-vote? Because that right applies only to people who live within city (or town or village) limits. Contrary to what most Americans may believe, people who don’t live in a place with its own established local government—like a city, town or village—have no right under the Constitution to govern their own local communities. In fact, their communities can be governed by other local governments in which they have no say.
In other words, how local government is organized is up to state law, and the remedy to amend these state laws is the political process.
Fair enough, but I think there’s still a problem with this. Ford refers here to the US Constitution, but I wonder if state constitutions have any separate provisions about the conditions under which local governments can exist or be abolished. The Supreme Court ruling that Ford cites does not enshrine the right of a state to do whatever it wants with local governments always and forever, but merely indicates that any state statute “and its conformity to the state constitution are wholly for the legislature and the courts of the state to determine.”
If the emergency financial manager provision is currently unconstitutional in the state of Michigan, someone should be able to take Snyder to court on this and repeal it. If it’s constitutional, though, it certainly seems that we ought to have stronger protections on local governments. Sure, they should be subordinate to state authority, but they’re still democratically elected officials who carry out certain services for their constituents, and it shouldn’t be so easy as passing a single piece of legislation to dismiss them entirely.
Instituting stronger protections on local governments might, for all I know, take an amendment to the state constitution. But state Democratic legislators are already considering such a move to protect union rights, so I don’t think it would be so outlandish see another similar effort on the local governments front.