The Legislature needs to tread carefully in exercising its power to pre-empt local laws.
SEATTLE has been something of a political chew toy for the Legislature this year, as it often is.
The city’s proposed experiments with safe injection sites for heroin users and commercial rent control for struggling neighborhood businesses won’t see the light of day if the Republican-controlled state Senate gets its way.
There are many more. Existing Seattle regulations on paid family leave, Uber drivers and tenant protections would all be killed by the supposedly wiser minds in Olympia exercising their power to pre-empt local efforts.
There’s a trend at work, and it is not a good one. The Legislature — in particular the Senate — needs to back away from an impulse to rein in Seattle. Lawmakers have more important work to do in reforming the education financing in response to the Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling.
That is particularly true about progressive experiments like the proposed safe injection sites in Seattle and King County.
Awash in heroin, the county formed a blue-ribbon panel to find innovative ways of keeping users alive and getting them into treatment. Safe injection sites are not the solution to the epidemic, but they are an evidence-based response. The Senate banned safe injection sites, with one Democrat joining the Republican majority on a bill sponsored by Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way.
Instead of meddling, lawmakers should watch and learn from King County’s proposed experiment.
There is a long history of tension between the Legislature — bent on exercising its power to pre-empt local authority — and its 281 cities. The Association of Washington Cities, after all, was founded after the repeal of Prohibition to ensure cities got a cut of new liquor taxes and the power to deal with drunks on the sidewalk.
The Legislature should exercise that power carefully. Washington’s governing structure is a classic example of decentralized power, to the delight of both libertarians and liberals. The state has 295 school districts and more local taxing districts than you can count, because we like government close to the people.
The results may displease activists on both sides of the political aisle. And occasionally the state needs to step in, to ensure civil rights and coherent governance. It makes sense, for example, for the state to ensure a gun owner doesn’t violate a dozen local laws by simply driving through jurisdictions on the I-5 corridor, or that cities don’t erode protections for LGBTQ residents.
Seattle initiatives viewed as social engineering by lawmakers from wheat country often look like reasonable responses to difficult urban problems when seen from the top of the Space Needle.
This session, there are dozens of bills with pre-exemption ideas in both the Democratic-controlled House and Senate, with Seattle ideas being the target of most of them. If Seattle goes too far — and it sometimes does — then local residents should vote the bums out. But Olympia should tread lightly and give cities the capacity to be laboratories of democracy.