Those throwaway plastic bags are in the news. Recently a bill was passed by a state House committee that would, if signed into law, make it illegal for cities to limit or ban their use.
Given that activists have been working for many months in cities like Lawrence, Salina, Wichita and elsewhere to make the case against our over-reliance on environmentally damaging plastics, this bill attracted fair amount of attention. It’s been withdrawn from the legislative calendar for now, but those persuaded by the harms tied to disposable (but not biodegradable) plastics in our lives will want to keep a close watch on Topeka.
Aside from the environmental issue of plastic bags, straws and the like, there is a question of governance here. Why does the state government get to decide what a city government — presumably in response to local organizing, persuasion and votes — can or cannot do?
The immediate answer is that states can tell cities what to do in the same way that the national government can tell states what to do. Except that, as anyone who follows the news or the basics of American history knows, the latter isn’t entirely true.
Under the Constitution’s federal arrangement, there are powers delegated to states which the national government supposedly cannot intrude upon. The fight over state vs. national power has been a constant throughout the United States’s existence.
Cities, however, cannot constitutionally struggle with their states over government power in the same way. Federal courts have generally found that cities lack any kind of sovereign, delegated authority.
While some state courts have affirmed that cities enjoy an inherent right to self-determination — called “home rule” — most have not. Thus, legally speaking, most city governments are expected to administer within state-set parameters, nothing more.
Still, the American judicial system is always open to appeals, and plenty of exceptions exist.
In recent decades, many cities have cities successfully worked around their state governments and established new legal precedents, allowing them to enact municipal ordinances on the minimum wage, marijuana usage, gun possession, bicycle traffic, and much more, often in ways that contradict relevant state policies.
That cities may develop a distinct political culture reflected in their local laws is hardly new, but the contemporary ideological divide is different. America’s urban areas — especially, but not only, its large metropolitan ones — are becoming increasingly progressive and diverse.
This is happening, slowly but surely, even in an otherwise conservative state like Kansas. The result is areas like Johnson County or Wichita, many of whose residents are increasingly liberal as regards the environment, criminal justice, gun safety or economic inequality, regularly butting heads with a state government accustomed to a more conservative perspective.
This political struggle, tied up as it is it is with demographic change, will not end anytime soon.
Whatever the cause, voters in Kansas’s increasingly blue, or at least purple, cities will keep attempting to vote into place the policies they democratically prefer, while state legislators will keep trying to legally restrict these actions.
An argument over banning or limiting plastic bags may seem to be a small dispute, compared to other debates in our state. But in reality, the fight reflects the battle over state vs. local government power, one that will likely grow here in the years to come.
Russell Arben Fox, Ph.D., runs the history and politics major and the honors program at Friends University in Wichita.