Home Rule in the Breach

Home Rule in the Breach

Home Rule in the Breach

Slate's blog on legal issues.
April 10 2008 7:32 PM

Home Rule in the Breach

David, your point about home rule is well taken, but even in cities with broad home rule, local authority is often quite limited.

Two examples from the city that knows how (but still can’t, as it happens).

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California cities have very broad home-rule powers—among the most generous in the nation.   But the courts often interpret ambiguous state laws as implicitly preempting local ordinances.   San Francisco voters passed a handgun ban by initiative in 2005.   Unlike Washington, D.C., which is at least getting the chance to test its ban against the Second Amendment, San Francisco just has its ban invalidated in state court as preempted by a state firearms regulation.   The state laws the court relied on are actually silent as to local regulation—they’re laws that establish statewide regulation of firearms.   The courts found that these laws occupied the field and implicitly prohibited the local regulation.

Another example of aggressive preemption hobbling local government:   San Francisco’s attempt to provide for universal health care for local residents has run into federal preemption problems in court.   The city wants to extend its existing coverage provided through SF General Hospital and a network of local clinics to all residents who don’t already have coverage.   But it also wants to be sure employers don’t just drop health insurance and dump their employees on the city in response.   So it’s added a mandate that most employers either offer coverage or pay a fee to contribute to the city health-care plan.   This is not a regulation of employee benefits—the city isn’t making anyone provide health-care benefits.   It’s just making those who don’t offer coverage to pay the fee (or better put, it’s making every business pay a fee for local health care and exempting those business that provide coverage for their employees) in order to ward off the free-rider problem.   But this initiative is being challenged as preempted by ERISA , which regulates employee benefits and preempts almost any state of local law in the field.   Is San Francisco’s ordinance even within the field of employee benefits, or is it just a fee levied on local businesses (which the city is otherwise entitled to levy) coupled with a city-provided service?   A broad interpretation of field preemption will kill the city’s health-care initiative.

Now you might think the city has no business trying to mandate universal health care—it’s not really a local issue, right?   But consider this: T he city already operates a large health-care system because, as a consolidated city and county, it’s responsible for public health care for the indigent.   The city discovered that it spent a fortune treating poor people in the ER of SF General for conditions that really should be treated cheaply in routine doctor's-office visits.   So it set up a network of free neighborhood clinics to provide preventative and routine care in order to keep those people out of the ER.   At this point, the city already has a health-care network in place.   But what about people who have jobs and aren’t indigent but who still don’t have health care?   When they get really sick, they wind up at SF General, too.   So the city wants to cover them in the clinics.   This led to the push for universal health care and to the contested employer fees.

I’m not at all certain this is good policy. It’s possible that, as the small-business owners and restaurant owners argue, the mandate will put people out of business and make everyone worse off. Restaurants have gotten together and decided to tack a fee onto every bill to cover the costs of the new health coverage. They want the consumer to know why they’re paying extra for their five-course tasting menu and wine flight.   Maybe the extra costs will drive away consumers and put the marginal restaurant out of business. Maybe it will even destroy the foodie culture here and consign us all to have to eat at Red Lobster and Outback.   But isn’t this just the kind of local effect we should expect a city to be sensitive to and adjust to?   And mightn’t it be a good idea to let a local government experiment with universal health care to give Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama some actual information to work with when they argue about it?

These aren’t home-rule issues, but they are examples of how we hobble our cities from doing what cities ought to do—experiment with new policy ideas that might not occur to legislators or bureaucrats at the state or national level—or might not get past the special interests there.