How does the legislature make state-level policies work for small communities?

WV Delegates Storch and Cowles review legislation related to local governments

BY TAYLOR BENNETT, POLICY COORDINATOR, THE HUB

When it comes to making state-level policies, the WV Legislature is tasked with finding policy solutions that will impact everyone in the state. This is a tall order, considering the striking diversity of communities across the state. Our communities vary greatly in size, in community vision, and in the types of challenges they face.

As citizens, thinking critically about how this is done can provide opportunities to jump in when policy solutions aren’t working, to suggest alternatives, and to advocate for policies that serve all of us.

What strategies do legislators use to make sure that the big policies that they are passing work for small communities?

Here are some examples:

Pass legislation that is only applicable to a specific geographic area, communities of a specific size, etc.

This accounts for the fact that communities with different characteristics will experience different challenges. It prevents geographic areas that aren’t experiencing the same challenges from having extra, non-applicable laws. On the other hand, if the policy becomes applicable to new geographic areas in the future, it will take another bill to expand the policy solution.

Example: SB 36

This bill would establish the Mountaineer Trail Network. This is a great solution to the challenge of how to organize cooperation on this trail, but if new counties want to be added to the network in the future, another piece of legislation will be required. 

Pass legislation that is very specific to a challenge.

This naturally includes only communities that are dealing with this challenge and excludes those that are not. Therefore, if a challenge is specific to rural areas, and the proposed legislation is very specific about that challenge, lawmakers can be more confident that it won’t impact urban communities – or vice versa.

Example: HB 2309

This bill would allow municipalities to cancel elections when only one person is running. This bill is specific enough that it excludes any community which has multiple candidates for their political offices.

Pass legislation that can be interpreted broadly.

This is probably the most common method that state legislators use to ensure that small and rural communities aren’t adversely impacted by state laws. A particular mechanism that they use is using the word “may” rather than the word “shall.”

When a bill says “may,” local governments have the option of whether or not to adopt the legislation. This way local governments can determine how the law might impact their community and act accordingly. 

Example: SB 138

This legislation offers some incentives for local governments that choose to consolidate. But, because of the way this bill is written, no local government would be obligated to consolidate.

Pass legislation that gives a local government authority to legislate on the issue.

Understanding that community members are the experts on how to solve local problems is at the core of The Hub’s work. Local-level governments are comprised of experts that can come up with policy solutions that directly address challenges residents are facing.

Example: Home Rule (passed in 2019)

This legislation gives municipalities the authority to identify policy solutions to challenges they are facing that are specific to that municipality. For example, Morgantown can pass ordinances prohibiting upholstered furniture from being on people’s porches to prevent couch burning, without it having to be a statewide mandate.

It’s a difficult task that legislators take on – making policies that are implemented statewide that must serve our small, rural communities as well as our urban ones – but it’s a vital responsibility of our state government.

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