Stop cities from setting state law

Frustrated with gridlock in capital cities, including the big one on the Potomac, progressive activists have turned their attention to blue metros. Cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Portland are their new darlings. Michelle Goldberg writes in The Nation, an unabashedly left-wing political magazine, “[C]ities are … becoming laboratories for progressive policy innovation.”

The wave has been building for more than a decade. But elections of liberal mayors like Ed Murray in Seattle and Bill De Blasio in New York City give it new momentum. Coalitions committed to raising the minimum wage and boosting union membership handed the freshly elected a first-year agenda. In Seattle, things moved swiftly and the $15 minimum wage is being phased in. New York City and Portland, however, face the salutary hurdle of state laws prohibiting cities from setting their own minimum wage.

Such preemption makes sense. Consider the political context that has placed cities at the center of resurgent progressive populism.

After Obama took office, hope soared but change stumbled. His health care reform passed with no Republican support and remains unpopular nationally. When Republicans gained the House, progressives’ progress stalled. While the president has vowed to bypass Congress, there are limits to his executive authority. The liberal domestic agenda will be on hold for the balance of his presidency.

Historically, when movement stalls in the nation’s capital, states fill the vacuum. Justice Louis Brandeis described states as laboratories of democracy in 1932, seeing them as vehicles for progressive experimentation. States can still serve that role, as Washington has shown in environmental regulation, the minimum wage, and pre-Obamacare health care reform. Gov. Inslee wants to build on the tradition.

But divided legislatures have successfully stymied the more ambitious agendas of liberal governors, including Inslee’s. It’s natural. State government will tend toward moderation as a function of demographic and economic diversity. Most states have something resembling Washington’s Cascade Curtain. Anyone who has seen those red-blue presidential election maps charting votes by county understands the dynamic. Low-density red seas surround urban islands of blue. In addition, legislative processes are designed to make sweeping change difficult.

Cities are different. Many large metro areas lack political diversity. New York Times reporter Annie Lowrey accurately described Seattle politicians as ranging “from left to far-left.” The checks-and-balances that inhibit change in state capitals don’t operate the same way at City Hall.

But an urban go-it-alone strategy has consequences for state and regional economies. Urbanist scholar Joel Kotkin recently took note of the celebration of progressive big city mayors. Commenting on mayoral assertions that cities are where the action is, Kotkin writes, “It’s hard to underestimate the hubris of this assessment … the vast majority of American demographic growth and job growth continues to go either into the suburban rings or to low-density sprawling regions.”

For a time, cities like Seattle can withstand the costs of high taxes, mandated employee compensation and extraordinary regulatory burdens. The benefits of being in a dynamic city with extraordinary resources — professional sports, the arts, universities and research institutions, transportation networks and skilled labor — can temporarily offset high costs. Eventually, though, business will migrate to communities offering similar amenities with lower costs, affordable housing and better schools. Some will look at the region and forego the risk of locating or expanding here. Those that stick face an increasing costly, unpredictable labor environment.

To prevent a patchwork of inconsistent employment policies, a dozen states have preempted local governments from setting their own minimum wages. Absent those policies, Portland and New York City might have a $15 minimum wage now, making their inclement business climates even less hospitable.

Preemption is nothing new. Here, state law overrides local efforts to regulate gun rights and smoking policies. But there’s no such constraint on employment policies like paid sick leave and minimum wage. There should be.

The Elway Poll reports that Washington voters support a uniform statewide minimum wage by a 49-43 margin. Big cities are not islands. What they do affects the rest of the state. State law should limit the ability of urban activists to threaten the health of the larger economy. Efforts to pass preemption legislation in Olympia failed this year. Backers should keep trying.

Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. Email rsdavis@simeonpartners.com

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