Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Coloumn #118. First published in the St. Cloud Times online May 6, 2017; in print May 7

Local control. It has been an American ideal since the Declaration of Independence. That document, from 241 years ago, includes this in its long list of grievances against King George III: “He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained.”

Local control, like most ideals, is at least as much a question as it is an answer.

The Articles of Confederation clearly erred on the side of too much “local control.” Furious debates over the scope of federal and state powers set the stage for the Constitutional Convention of 1787 — and for the never-ending controversy about where the buck stops.

Local control is in jeopardy in Minnesota, the attack coming from where you’d not expect it — conservatives. Historically, they present themselves as champions of “limited government” and local control. Why, then, are they authoring and supporting HF 600 and SF 580, entitled the “Uniform State Labor Standards Act” and described as “Express Preemption; Uniformity of Private Employer Mandates"?

Federal and state law do not require employers to provide paid sick leave, but local governments — “local control” — can have higher requirements. Both St. Paul and Minneapolis have ordinances, slated to go into effect this summer, that require job-protected sick and safe leave rights for all employees.

You may think public policy documents such as ordinances dull, even impenetrable, but these are eloquent, demonstrating a grasp of social realities that politicians, and all of us, need to be reminded of.

Demographics are changing. Family structures are many and various. Extricating oneself from domestic abuse consumes time and safe leave may be necessary.  Women and minorities — especially women of color — are disproportionately represented in jobs that provide minimal or no benefits. Most important of all, paid sick leave and paid or unpaid safe leave are not simply, or even primarily, economic issues. They are a matter of public health and well-being.

Minneapolis and St. Paul are taking their own reality seriously. As St. Paul City Council member Rebecca Noecker said last year, “We have local government because there is an understanding that City Council members have the ability to be closer to their constituents and to be more in touch with their needs and desires than someone at the Legislature.”

HF 600 and SF 580, now in conference committee, preempt the St. Paul and Minneapolis ordinances, and any such ordinance by any local jurisdiction in Minnesota at any time in the future, forever.

The legislation defines “employer” as “a private person employing one or more employees in the state” (remember that corporations are “persons”), and “local government” means “a home rule charter city, statutory city, town, county, the Metropolitan Council, a metropolitan agency, or a special district.”


According to the proposed legislation, here is what a local government can’t do:

Local government must not adopt, enforce, or administer an ordinance, local resolution, or local policy

requiring an employer to pay an employee a wage higher than the applicable state minimum wage rate;
requiring an employer to provide either paid or unpaid leave time;
regulating the hours or scheduling of work time that an employer provides to an employee;
requiring an employer to provide an employee a particular benefit, term of employment, or working condition.

The legislation is derived from models for states across the country provided by the extreme right-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council, in which huge corporations play a very big part. Indeed, the adoption of ALEC templates is itself a kind of abdication of “local control” by our own legislators.

Unfortunately, the bills are supported by the Chamber of Commerce, which claims that permitting local jurisdictions to have their own rules, different from state ones, creates an undue burden for businesses because of the increased paperwork. You’d have a hard time convincing me that there is not a high school computer whiz who could come up with a workable algorithm in a day or two.

There are questions about which businesses preemption “protects.” More than 100 members of Minnesota’s branch of Mainstreet Alliance, a small-business group, worked hard to make sure the Twin Cities ordinances are friendly to their concerns, and the Alliance has recently appeared in legislative hearings to argue against preemption.

The League of Minnesota Cities has expressed opposition to the bills because they are “in conflict with the League’s long-held core value that local elected decision-makers are in the best position to determine what health, safety, and welfare regulations best serve their constituents.”

The Legislature should not mimic George III by forbidding local jurisdictions “to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance.” But if the preemption legislation makes it to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk, he should veto it, to forestall the loss of benefits by 150,000 people  in St. Paul and Minneapolis — and the loss of local control throughout the state forever.