State GOP: Making Michigan safe for plastic bags

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It’s not by accident that the Republican Party is so closely associated with the ideas of “states’ rights,” “home rule,” and “local control.” Questioning those core convictions isn't something the GOP is widely known for in Michigan, especially since 1908, when strong provisions for home rule were enshrined in the new state Constitution.

Lately, however, across the country, state-level Republicans are finding themselves out of step with local governments and playing trump cards on them. It's happening from the South, where many cities are more progressive than the hayseed solons who convene in cowtown Capitol buildings, to the North, where even left-leaning suburbs and university towns consider laws that are anathema to the GOP's beloved right-wing think tanks and legislation mills.

In truth, this sort of thing goes back at least to 1990, when Democratic Gov. Jim Blanchard signed Public Act 319, prohibiting “local units of government” from passing restrictive firearms laws. Increasingly, however, there seems to be no special interest that the state GOP won’t take under its wing and protect from fussy municipalities who’d like to, you know, actually legislate against something residents object to.

Take, fireworks, for instance. The state GOP was instrumental in passing a law prescribing that, aside from some bans on nighttime fireworks, no ordinance shall regulate the “ignition, discharge, or use of consumer fireworks on the day preceding, the day of, or the day after a national holiday.”

What are “consumer grade” fireworks? They’re a 10-decibel step up (at least) from the “low-impact” fireworks formerly allowed under state law. The result is that on week of the Fourth of July, it sounds like a refinery blowing up for several continuous days, as people launch rockets into the air and, thanks to poorly fastened displays that tip over, across the backyard, where they explode in spectacular fireballs right next to house guests.

That’s probably OK in the country, but what about dense cities that have no suitable site to launch fireworks? (And that’s not just us talking: Have a look at the safety guidelines of fireworks trade associations and you’ll find they agree.) Well, if you lived in a dense, urban area without the recommended clearances to launch fireworks, it meant your city council was just about powerless to make laws against their use during national holidays.

Or take community benefits agreements: It seems reasonable to think that a community that is going to pull a few strings or help cook up a subsidy for a developer should be able to wangle a few extra jobs for residents, or help ensure that amenities or mitigations are part of that contract. The deal might include that added sweetener that helps a deal pass muster with a locality. And what is more sacrosanct to a Republican lawyer than contract law?

Not so fast, said GOP state Rep. Earl Poleski of Jackson. He introduced a bill that would nix CBAs, and would also forbid local governments from setting their own minimum wage. Gov. Rick Snyder signed it last year.

For an even more petty example, look at the end run the state GOP executed this month: A law banning municipalities from enacting laws against single-use plastic bags. Now, bear in mind, the only units of government that seemed to be considering enacting a plastic bags ordinance were Washtenaw and Muskegon counties. In fact, there are only seven states with any laws, fees, fines, or regulations of plastic bags, and none in the Midwest.

But that didn’t stop Republican state Rep. Jim Stamas of Midland from introducing a bill that would stop local communities from instituting regulations on bags, cups, bottles, or packaging. At least Stamas had the decency to not hide behind “free market” rhetoric in this bid to ensure no county or municipality could regulate single-use plastic bags. No, he said a state law against local laws would create “consistency” and help ensure “you’re not putting different regulations across the state on the containers.”

Ah, sweet consistency. So those paper bags that are caught by the wind and stay up in trees for years on end until they shred away completely? They’re not unappealing garbage worth legislating out of existence. They’re flags of uniformity, standards of, well, standardization, showing that the law, in its infinite wisdom, ensures that we all stand together in equality, with no locally written, enforced, and funded laws standing in the way of obvious nuisances.

So what conclusions are we to draw from all this? How does a party align itself for generations with local rule and argue against diktats from on high, only to suddenly execute end run after end run against local decision-making, often before such initiatives even gather enough support to be implemented?

Some would suggest examining the way the state GOP has gerrymandered itself into an unassailable position of power. Despite the fact that most of the votes in Michigan are cast for other parties, the GOP comes out on top again and again by fancifully drawing the electoral boundaries to ensure their continued majority.

Yes, in the past local bastions of conservative power were to be protected, ensuring pockets of wealth and affluence where social progress could be slowed and, sometimes, stopped.

The problem is that the GOP’s lock on the state’s legislature now means local governments have become the primary laboratories for experiments in environmental law, living wages, and even common sense stuff like not setting off rockets in your backyard. These are exactly the sorts of experiments the state party can’t control through mere gerrymandering. So they pronounce themselves protectors of evenhandedness by tamping down on any dangerous local-level experimentation.

And this is the sort of thing that should upset real Republicans most of all. How can loyal adherents of the GOP, which year after year proclaimed its allegiance to home rule, local control, and states’ rights, suddenly flip a bitch and expect its principled members to not pitch a fit? Why shouldn’t wealthy residents in, say, Grosse Pointe Shores, Ann Arbor, or Bloomfield Township be able to restrict the use of fireworks or to propose common-sense regulations against single-use plastic bags? Is democracy not for them, too?

Of course it is. The truth is, the state legislature has fallen into the hands of a group of politicians so cynical, so anti-democratic, and so belligerent to common sense, that they don’t want any popular input, thank you very much. And should you try to control things locally, stay out of their way, or they’ll jam down on the accelerator and cut you off on the political highway.

More than two centuries ago, a famously cranky observer of the political scene was fed up with the power-brokers and tinhorn kings of his day. His name was John Adams. He said we should seek to establish “a government of laws and not of men.” In other words, let clearly written laws, consented to by the people, provide the order, not the whims of individual men. It’s a refreshing sentiment, one that probably even Republicans, Democrats, and even all the other parties would agree with. 

But a government of “laws not men” doesn’t mean a government of men hiding behind laws.

And that's increasingly what the state legislature resembles. 


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