If you get past the over-the-top political rhetoric—that special interests are “trying to steal” a benefit conferred by private employers to their employees—this is exactly the kind of policy discussion we should be having: What’s more fundamental, liberty or “local democracy”?
In her Dallas Morning News opinion piece, New America’s Lydia Bean takes the local control argument a step further. Local democracy is at risk when state legislatures try to rein in municipal governments, she contends. And she singles out the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which I work for, as one of the special interests attempting to “change the rules when they lose in the court of public opinion.”
This much is true; TPPF has filed suit against the city of Austin for its mandatory paid sick leave ordinance (but not San Antonio, as she wrongly states; another business coalition just won a separate stay of the San Antonio Ordinance using TPPF’s legal arguments in the Austin case). And on Tuesday, TPPF filed suit against Dallas regarding its ordinance.
Our reasoning is clear and compelling. Cities have no right to legislate on matters where the state has already spoken. Municipalities are creatures of the state—it’s not the other way around. And the state has spoken, through the Texas Minimum Wage Act. Our argument can be found here.
When cities infringe on the rights of citizens, the Legislature is right to step in to defend liberty.
Ms. Bean places the question of mandatory paid sick leave in a false dichotomy: “powerful business lobbyists” versus “a broad coalition of working people.” In truth, opposition to the sick leave mandate comes from concerns about the very real effects on small businesses. Paid sick leave is not a gift from Heaven or from city council; it’s part of a range of things that an employer might offer as compensation, something to be negotiated between employers and employees.
But forcing the matter has real consequences. As one study points out, “Employer surveys indicate that affected businesses frequently respond to paid sick leave laws by increasing prices, decreasing employee benefits and hours, and limiting expansion.”
But that’s beside the point. The real point here is whether mandating and monitoring compensation packages is truly a proper role for the city. Even if we agree that paid sick leave is a good policy for employers, why should the city be the paycheck police?
Free negotiations between employers and employees are the best and most effective way to extend this benefit to more and more workers, while keeping the costs and the impacts at a minimum.
Taken at face value, Ms. Bean’s call for local democracy is really a call for majoritarianism—the view that a majority of the population has a right to decide things for all of us. That’s a deeply flawed philosophy; the U.S. Constitution was designed protect the rights of the individual and limit the power of the government in telling us how to live our lives.
Where would local democracy end? Could a city limit speech to “free speech zones” as some colleges try to do (and fail in the face of constitutional challenges)? Could cities limit other rights?
Ms. Bean points to another example that illustrates the basic question here—TPPF’s fight with the city of Austin over its short-term rental policies (which affect things like Airbnb and HomeAway). She calls the city’s coming ban on STRs (like restrictions in Arlington) “common-sense enforcement of disruptive commercial activity in residential neighborhoods.”
But it’s not; it’s an infringement of private property rights and due process. As for “disruptive commercial activity,” the city already has plenty of public nuisance laws on its books that can be used to deal with loud (temporary) neighbors.
The larger question remains; what’s more important—local opinion or individual liberty? Like the Founders, we will side with the rights of Americans every time.