Criticism of Dillon’s Rule has gone mainstream. Systemic solutions must be elevated.
In November 2019, Democrats took control of the Virginia General Assembly. Under Republican control, the Assembly had “preempted” local governments from passing laws impacting the most basic aspects of local life. Municipalities were banned from raising the minimum wage, governing the fossil fuel industry, outlawing application of sewage sludge, and heightening civil rights protections. They were hamstrung in how they could raise revenues or otherwise weigh in on core decisions that people in a true democracy have the power to make.
In the wake of 2017’s violent White Supremacist “Unite the Rights” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, locals were astonished that their authority to remove local racist statues or ban assault weapons at public rallies was not recognized. They also soon discovered that their power to make housing more affordable and to heighten their oversight of police departments was stymied by the state Assembly.
These dynamics impact municipalities across the state.
When voters flipped the Assembly in favor of Democratic control, almost immediately calls to reform Dillon’s Rule—which the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has worked for years to abolish through state constitutional change—began to proliferate.
The Editorial Board of Virginia’s The News & Advance, letters to the editor, and even a Washington Post op-ed have drawn attention to Virginia’s centralized system of government and called for reform.
The News & Advance editorial reads:
“When the new legislature convenes [in January], it’s guaranteed there will be a world of changes in store, some minor and some major. We believe that, in the 21st century, it would be a worthwhile endeavor for the Assembly to consider modifying and perhaps loosening the Dillon Rule strictures local governments have long struggled with.”
However, it is far from certain where this momentum for reform will go.
History tells us that Democrats will be happy to retain centralized control under Dillon’s Rule when it serves them, though we may see Democrats pass legislation to loosen state preemption of progressive issues such as minimum wage and statues.
However, reforming state preemption that infringes on democratic, environmental, and economic rights is not abolishing it. Advancing real democratic change to decentralize political decision-making power in Virginia (and other states across the country) requires state constitutional change. CELDF and communities in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Oregon are advancing such change through community rights state constitutional amendments that lay the groundwork for a system of law where local residents enjoy a democratic right to heighten protections for humans and ecosystems.
Following last November’s election, CELDF staff published an in depth article about Dillon’s Rule and Charlottesville for Scalawag. The piece was later published in 100 Days in Appalachia, a collaborative news site from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Daily Yonder, and the Media Innovation Center. You can read the article here:
It will take a people’s movement to abolish regressive forms of state preemption and liberate our communities from state-sanctioned corporate harm. It will take a people’s movement to create the just and sustainable communities we envision. CELDF and hundreds of communities across the country are leading the way. Join us. Learn more at www.celdf.org and reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.