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In our opinion: On matters of panhandling or dog breeds, let localities decide

Published: Friday, March 14 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Legislature in Utah often imposes itself on local governments here and there to satisfy demands from some constituency or to fix a perceived problem. The legal and constitutional right to do so doesn't make it a wise decision.

Rick Bowmer, AP

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Is it proper for the state to pass laws limiting panhandling and other activities along roadways, or should each city decide for itself whether it has a problem worthy of an ordinance?

What about laws directed at the ownership of certain types of animals, or certain breeds of dog? Cities and counties operate animal shelters and fund the officers who run those agencies. Local governments typically set the rules about whether cats or ferrets must be licensed, or place limits on how many pets may reside in a house.

Unfortunately, Utah lawmakers passed HB101, a “Roadway and sidewalk safety” law that would prohibit roadside panhandling statewide. As of press time, a bill that would bar localities from passing a breed-specific dog ordinance, HB97, had passed the House and was in second reading in the Senate.

Utah lawmakers often cite the idea that the best government is the one closest to the people. Many react with anger when the federal government imposes restrictions on the state of Utah, usually in exchange for some amount of federal money, about a practice that ought to be left for each state to decide. Local control was at the heart of the debate about whether the state should attempt to craft its own medical safety net under the rules of the Affordable Care Act.

However, those same lawmakers often support measures that similarly impose the state’s will on a local government’s areas of concern.

This has happened many times through the years on matters ranging from local zoning decisions to, in a particularly distasteful case, forcing Salt Lake County to provide tax revenue toward the construction of a soccer stadium.

Many states operate under what has become known as the Dillon Rule, after an 1868 opinion by Iowa Supreme Court Justice John Dillon. Simply stated, it is that local governments enjoy powers only as state legislatures grant them. Cities, counties and other subdivisions are creatures of the state.

Ironically, Utah is among the few states that have rejected the Dillon Rule. But at the same time, Utah is not a “home rule” state, meaning it doesn’t grant local governments the right to pass any ordinances they desire so long as they conform to the state constitution.

Thus it is that the Legislature in Utah often imposes itself on local governments here and there to satisfy demands from some constituency or to fix a perceived problem.

Salt Lake City has struggled through the years to deal with aggressive panhandlers and to assuage complaints from downtown businesses. Having struggled with this issue, it is Salt Lake City that is best situated to deal with its unique challenges, including possibly regulating those who would solicit money from drivers at various intersections.

The same is true of other cities who either have chosen to confront this issue — or have little need to deal with it.

Likewise, the need to regulate ownership of any specific breed of dog is no more a function of the state than is a determination on whether ferrets should be allowed as pets. Cities and counties know best which animal-related issues are of concern to their residents, and those residents benefit more from being able to approach an accessible city hall than a distant legislature made up mostly of people who don’t live in their neighborhoods.

We don’t dispute the legal and constitutional right of the Legislature to pass laws regarding panhandling or permissible dog breeds. We simply dispute the wisdom of the Utah Legislature doing so.

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