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Taking the Field: HB2, Local Decision-Making and Economic Growth 

By Paul Meyer, NCLM Executive Director

As the North Carolina General Assembly debated House Bill 2, the controversial legislation that overturned a Charlotte anti-discrimination ordinance and placed other limits on cities’ local authority regarding discrimination policies, I issued a public statement about the legislation. It read: "Placing limits on local decision-making authority ultimately is a limit on the political power of local residents. Those residents can and do hold local officials responsible for their decisions. The League has and will continue to oppose legislation like this which pre-empts local decision-making and undermines the political power of local residents."

In consultation with other members of our staff, I issued that statement fully aware that the diverse municipalities across our state and their locally elected officials would have very different views about the Charlotte ordinance. But that was really the point of the statement. Charlotte is not Raleigh; Raleigh is not Asheville; Asheville is not Hendersonville; Hendersonville is not Spruce Pine; and Spruce Pine is not Greenville.

North Carolina’s cities and towns, to one degree or another, are a reflection of the vision of local residents. Chopping away at local decision-making authority undermines the ability of local residents to pursue that individual vision of each community. And each of those visions, collectively, help to create a diverse state that attracts and encourages an array of economic activity.

As much as state policy may encourage or deter business activity, when company executives are choosing a new location, they are looking for a town or city that reflects the values of the company. Today, so much of that selection is about finding a location that will be attractive to a particular company’s talent pool and that has a particular culture that will produce the kind of workforce talent that the company needs.

It’s also important to remember that we live in an era of regional economies, where a city hub can serve as a job center for a dozen or more surrounding towns, sometimes 50 or more miles from that city downtown. When Charlotte hurts, so does Gastonia, Mooresville, Monroe, Huntersville and Concord. That pain is not borne only by the residents of those municipalities who commute to Charlotte. It’s felt by the businesses in those towns who sell groceries, clothes and gas to those commuting workers. It’s felt by auto mechanics, restaurateurs and barbers.

As I’ve noted before in these pages, the tension between local government and state government, and how decision-making between the two levels of government should be parceled out, is not new. What has changed over the last several decades is just how varied company cultures can be, and how that factors into their decisions of where to locate and where to expand. The best way to take advantage of that shift, and to grow North Carolina’s economy, is to help cities and towns pursue their own visions of what their communities should be. That can mean historic coastal villages like Beaufort finding innovative ways to preserve and promote that history, or it can mean artsy Asheville making investments that attract craft brewers.

As I said in our statement, placing unnecessary limits on local decision-making ultimately is a check on the political power of local residents. In today’s ever-changing world, those limits may also serve as a restraint on economic innovation.