When the constitution’s framers developed the American system to handle governing power, they divided power in two distinct ways: the first is horizontally, by giving pieces of different powers (law-making, law-executing, law-adjudicating) to different branches of government. Hence, our “checks and balances” approach to government.
The second distinct way is by dividing power vertically, through a system we now call federalism on the levels of national, state, and local.
It is intriguing that while North Carolina Republicans are vociferous in wanting their own power kept at the state level from national interference, they are quite willing to use their own power to interfere with local governments.
Recently, NC State Rep. Mike Hager, the Republican majority whip, stated that “Republican lawmakers say the bills (rejecting federal preferences on health care and unemployment insurance) reflect a desire to assert states’ rights and tell the federal government to ‘stay out of our business.’”
In fact, that was a major philosophy plank of the GOP in last year’s campaign, to assert the power of the state against the domination of the federal government, as they saw it in things like the Affordable Care Act.
The code words “states’ rights” have long been associated with the struggle over who has power and what kind of power is shared between the national and state governments. Wrapped in the South’s legacy of slavery and segregation, modern instances of “states’ rights” conflicts continue today.
The American federal system forces the two levels of government to share some power (for example, law-making, establishing courts, and taxation), but also awards certain powers to respective governments that the others can’t engage in.
For example, states can’t print their own money or declare war against another nation, but the national government is limited in its powers and “powers not delegated to the United States … nor prohibited by [the Constitution] to the States, are reserved to the States.”
But when it comes to the relationship between North Carolina and its local governments, well, that’s a different story.
Based on the notion of Dillon’s Rule, a judicial ruling from the early 1800s, states have the power to create or destroy local governments, and in the process, define what authority cities, counties, and other sub-state governments possess.
The recent skirmishes between both the Republican-dominated legislature and the governor with the city of Charlotte are just two prime examples.
First, Gov. McCrory sent a not-so-subtle message to Mayor Foxx that pursuing funding for a street car would endanger the light rail funding from the state.
The message (helpful advice? threat?) was not well received.
Then came along word of backchannel negotiations for the General Assembly to divorce the Charlotte-Douglas Airport operations from the city’s control and created into an independent authority (a power that the state possesses) to run it.
The resulting power struggle again pits the city against its overseer of the state legislature.
Along with many other sister states, North Carolina takes a unitary approach to their underlings at the local level: we (the state) give you (locals) your power, and we can tell you what you can and can’t do.
But when it comes to dictates from the “big, bad centralized government in D.C.,” states can sing a very different and defiant tune: we’re standing up for our rights and powers.
It’s seems that it is not so much speaking out of both sides of one’s ideological mouth, but more like a full-scale operatic crooning when it comes to defending what states can and can’t do with their power.