Republicans: Local control for me but not for thee

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Elephant in front of school.
Elephant in front of school. Illustrated | iStock

If nothing else, the late pandemic era should finally obliterate the notion that the modern GOP is "the party of local control."

Consider these events from the last few days: In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey announced on Tuesday the state would refuse to give federal COVID-19 relief money to school districts that impose mask mandates on their students. In Florida, the Republican-controlled State Board of Education voted to begin investigations of school districts in Alachua and Broward counties that have defied Gov. Ron DeSantis' mandate ban. And in Texas — where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott just tested positive for the coronavirus — the state supreme court this week sided with Abbott and temporarily blocked mask mandates in San Antonio and Dallas independent school districts.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (another Republican) left no doubt who gets the final say over local decision making in Texas. Spoiler: It's not the locals. "Let this ruling serve as a reminder to all ISDs and local officials that the governor's order stands," he tweeted.

COVID is rampant in all three states, which makes the prohibitions on mask mandates seem unwise. They're also unpopular with the broader public: A recent poll shows two-thirds of Americans favor state or local mask requirements. The problem? The same poll shows — no surprise — that the mandates are mostly disfavored by Republican voters. So maybe it's understandable (if extremely frustrating) why Ducey, DeSantis, and Abbott have pre-empted local officials in their states.

Understandable, but not very consistent. Conservatives have long argued — in a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson — that "the government closest to the people serves the people best." It's a big country, after all. What works in one location might not be best in another. "Texas is so diverse that what is right in Houston and Harris County and Dallas and San Antonio may not be the best approach in Amarillo," an Abbott spokesman said early in the pandemic. That statement is apparently no longer operative.

The GOP's commitment to local control has always been honored more in the breach, anyway. Donald Trump spent his presidency trying to crack down on sanctuary cities. Republican-controlled legislatures routinely prohibit local communities from adopting gun restrictions or minimum wage laws. In this case, conservative hypocrisy is playing out amidst a public health crisis. The results could be dangerous.

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