COMMENTARY: The legislature has been messing with local governments

The General Assembly tried to make it harder for cities to use red-light and speed cameras to police traffic. The state Supreme Court last week ruled that the legislature couldn’t do that, at least not the way it tried to in a 2014 law. The high court’s decision was a rare gain for Ohio municipalities, whose home rule powers have been steadily pruned by the General Assembly.

If you don’t think the legislature has been messing with local governments, check with Ohioans who have been struggling to ban fracking in their hometowns despite a 2004 law, signed by then-Gov. Bob Taft. It gave the state sole control over oil and gas production. On roughly a half-dozen additional fronts, the General Assembly has similarly fettered municipalities – at the very time the state aid to local governments has been cut, which you’d think should make local flexibility more important than ever.

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True, red-light and speed cameras irritate lots of Ohioans. To many drivers, the devices seem more like tollgates, to make money for cities, than traffic safety measures. Still, the Supreme Court decision (won by the city of Dayton in a challenge it filed to the 2014 law) highlights the Ohio Constitution’s municipal home rule provisions.

Home rule guarantees have been part of the state constitution since 1912. They were proposed by that year’s state constitutional convention and ratified in a statewide referendum by voters. The aim of the Ohio Constitution’s home rule sections is to prevent interference in municipal affairs by the General Assembly and to let local officials tailor policies to local conditions.

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State interference became chronic after the Civil War, when cities rapidly grew. Growing cities meant growing opportunities – for politicians and utilities. That meant that controlling cities’ politics and their policies became more and more important to political bosses and the “public service” companies formed to supply cities with electricity, gas and public transportation (streetcar lines).

Statehouse interference in local affairs became an avenue of choice for lobbyists because it’s much easier for special interests (and political party bosses) to sway the legislature – a body of officials that meets in one place – than to lobby Ohio’s numerous city and village governments. And then there’s this practical factor: What payback would a state legislator risk from interfering in with the officials of cities and villages that weren’t in that legislator’s Ohio House or state Senate district? The people who voted for or against such a lawmaker weren’t the same people that “ripper” bills (the Statehouse term for bills that let state officials interfere in municipal affairs) affected.

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Coincidentally or not, later last century, during which the General Assembly seemed to defer to home rule, Ohio elected governors from both parties who’d been mayors: Democrat Frank Lausche and Republican George Voinovich (Cleveland); Republican James A. Rhodes (Columbus); and Democrat Michael V. DiSalle (Toledo). And Democrat Gov. John J. Gilligan had been a Cincinnati City Council member while Republican Gov. John W. Bricker had been city solicitor (law director) of Grandview Heights. Those governors knew how state government could help, or hinder, municipalities.

Now, as during Ohio's years before World War I broke out, lobbyists have discovered that Statehouse schmoozing is more convenient (and offers better odds) than trying to sell something to 900-plus city and village councils. True, last week's high court ruling didn't necessarily signal a reversal of fortune for home rule. But Dayton's victory highlights home rule. And that itself can be powerful, given that our term-limited General Assembly is, as almost by definition, a legislature with amnesia.

‘Now, lobbyists have discovered that Statehouse schmoozing is more convenient (and offers better odds) than trying to sell something to 900-plus city and village councils.’

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