Laboratories of Democracy: States & Cities

Updated on June 23, 2020
Originally published on December 15, 2019

All eyes may be on Washington, D.C., but states and cities are testing out policies and programs that could prove successful across the country.

State and local experiments in governance have long been an American tradition. In 1870, Wyoming gave women the right to vote in local elections, paving the way for national women’s suffrage 50 years later. In 2003, New York City banned smoking in bars, restaurants, and most workplaces; today, indoor smoking is almost unheard of outside of casinos and cigar lounges. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously called states the “laboratories of democracy,” describing how different parts of the country could test out new policies, which others across the country could replicate or improve upon if successful.

State and local governments have broad power to regulate for the common welfare of their people. The Constitution empowers Congress and the president to do some specific things, like negotiate international treaties, regulate trade, levy taxes, declare war, command the armed forces, and appoint various government officials. But as for everything else, the Tenth Amendment is clear: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

While Congress and the White House seem to get all the press these days – perhaps because local media has shrunk dramatically – some of our most interesting public policy discussions are happening at the state and local levels. Here are four areas where states and localities are beta testing innovative policies.

Perhaps no local experiment has attracted more attention lately than the effort to reform the Minneapolis Police Department in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. Amidst intense and sustained protests, nine members of the local city council announced their intention to dismantle the city’s police department and replace it with a new public safety system, one created with input from the community and research on successful models from around the world. Roughly three weeks after Floyd’s death, the City Council approved a resolution beginning a year-long process of achieving that goal.

Reform at the state level has been halting, however, with discussions between Democratic and Republican legislators falling apart late last week. Democrats had proposed a package of reforms, including a ban on “warrior training,” rules against the use of deadly force, and making it easier to fire problematic officers. While Republicans agreed to support some provisions, such as a ban on chokeholds, requiring officers to stop their colleagues from using excessive force, and reforming the arbitration process for officers accused of acting improperly, legislators say they have not yet found enough common ground to move forward on a more significant overhaul.

Cash Bail
When a person is arrested, a judge can choose to release them while they await trial in exchange for bail, an immediate cash payment to the court. While some people can afford to post bail, many cannot and spend weeks, months, or even years in jail as their cases proceed.

The bail system, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, is intended to make sure defendants show up for trial, but many experts say it needlessly imprisons poor people – during a period when our justice system presumes them to be innocent until proven guilty. In 2015, a young man committed suicide after spending three years in a New York City jail awaiting trial. He had stolen a backpack at age 16 and his family could not afford the necessary $3,000 bail.

Beginning January 1, 2020, New York state will eliminate cash bail for most misdemeanor and non-violent felony arrests. One program that will take its place is called supervised release, where defendants are required to check in regularly with a pretrial services agency.

Universal Pre-K
A growing number of cities are offering universal pre-K to young children, an educational experience that would otherwise be out of reach for many American families. Research suggests that early childhood education has a positive impact on children’s development, as well as their long-term social, academic, and economic futures – but only if done right. One place where experts agree pre-K is being done right is Washington, D.C. (note that this program is run by the local, not the federal, government).

During the 2017-2018 school year, 79 percent of three- and four-year-olds were enrolled in public pre-K, far more than anywhere else in the country. D.C.’s program emphasizes non-cognitive skills like listening, generating new ideas, and engaging in conversation, which experts say are hallmarks of a quality pre-K program. And because D.C. blends local funding with federal funding for Head Start (a program for young low-income children) and bases its programs in public schools, its pre-K classrooms are quite diverse.

Research shows that D.C.’s program doesn’t just benefit children; it benefits their mothers, too. In the ten years since the District began offering universal preschool, the program has led to a 10 percent increase in mothers’ participation in the workforce.

Plastic Bags
Americans use an estimated 100 billion plastic bags each year, which usually end up in oceans, storm drains, and landfills. That’s why more than 400 cities and states in the U.S. have instituted bans or taxes on single-use plastic bags since 2007. The effort began in several cities in California, and culminated in a statewide ban, the nation’s first, in 2014. While thin plastic bags quickly went out of fashion in California, paper and heavier plastic bags came into vogue, bringing their own environmental problems. That’s why researchers say that a tax on all bags, even paper and reusable ones, may be more effective than a ban. Today, California bans all single-use plastic bags and imposes a 10-cent tax on others. New York and Hawaii have followed suit.

To be sure, some policy ideas are flops – Illinois’ Cook County, which includes Chicago, repealed its soda tax mere months after voting for it. Still, state and local beta testing often kickstarts progress. For the problems that affect us mostly directly, solutions may be closer to home than we think.

Learn More

Are Cities the New Labs? Some argue that cities, not states, are the new laboratories of democracy. But because cities are more likely to be home to Democrats, will their policy experiments gain traction in parts of the country that differ politically? – via Governing

Local Efficiency: Are states more efficient than the federal government? Many people on Capitol Hill say yes, but some political scientists disagree – via The Atlantic

Keep Cash Bail: A bail bondsman says that California’s elimination of cash bail will cost the state money and could actually make defendants worse off – via The Marshall Project

Pre-K in the Long-Run: One review of scientific literature finds that while pre-K programs appear to benefit children in the short-term, the long-term benefits aren’t clear – via Duke Sanford Center for Child and Family Policy

Banning Plastic: How effective are plastic bag bans? One advocate cautions that while it’s an important component of environmental policy, “it’s not going to change the world” – via National Geographic

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This article originally appeared in the December 15, 2019 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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