Over the years, California and its politicians have taken pride in pushing the policy envelope, setting a pace for the nation as a whole.
Decades ago, we led in building freeways, in battling smog that cars on those freeways created, and in offering low- or no-cost higher education opportunities.
Currently, Gov. Jerry Brown and other political figures are claiming global leadership in reducing carbon emissions and national leadership in legalizing undocumented immigrants.
We also are leading in other categories that aren’t so commendable, such as having the nation’s highest housing costs (and therefore its highest levels of poverty due to those costs) and among the nation’s lowest K-12 academic test scores.
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Not surprisingly, local politicians exhibit some of the same traits as their brethren in Sacramento, touting actions that outpace what the Capitol’s doing.
Three issues that frame that tendency are banning plastic bags, gun control and raising minimum wages.
As city after city banned plastic bags, the grocery store industry finally pushed the Capitol into acting, saying it needed uniformity, although the state ban could be overturned via a pending referendum sponsored by plastic bag manufacturers.
Brown has accepted a modest, phased-in increase in the state’s minimum wage, but labor unions and other liberal groups want a much higher increase to $15 an hour and have pushed the issue, with some success, at the local level.
Although California already has the nation’s most restrictive firearms regulations, several local governments have gone well beyond state law in enacting even tighter rules on who can buy and own guns and ammunition.
California is a very diverse state culturally and economically, and one-size-fits-all policy decrees from Sacramento ignore that fact. So perhaps on these three and other issues, it might make more sense to let the locals do what they want and what their constituents will tolerate, without assuming a need for statewide action.
Were the state ban on plastic bags to be repealed via referendum, local communities would still be free to prohibit them. Those in liberal coastal communities may worry about plastic bags winding up in the ocean, but that’s scarcely an issue to those in inland California.
Guns may be considered instruments of evil in gang-ridden Los Angeles, which just tightened up its laws, or in ever-trendy San Francisco, but they’re seen as benign tools for hunting food for the table and/or recreational devices in rural areas.
The minimum wage issue is especially ripe for localization. Economic circumstances and living costs vary widely in the state. It might make sense for San Francisco or Los Angeles to have minimum wages higher than the state’s – if minimum wage laws make any sense, which is debatable – but not so in Alturas or Barstow.
In rural communities, where living costs and the prevailing wage structure are much lower, a $15 wage could be very disruptive, causing more harm than good as employers shed jobs.
Allowing local politicians and voters to tailor such policies to local circumstances and sensitivities makes sense in such a complex state.
It would embody the “subsidiarity” principle that Brown often espouses – but doesn’t always follow.