Our Michigan Op-ed: Local communities deserve to make their own choices

We put this op-ed out in conjunction with Christopher Mitchell, the Community Broadband Networks initiative director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Thus far, it has been picked up by:

  • The Detroit News
  • The Port Huron Times Herald

Recently, a Michigan state lawmaker went viral on the Internet — but for the wrong reasons.

Last month, state Rep. Michele Hoitenga filed a bill that would preempt local governments from spending public funds to build community broadband Internet networks. Across the country, high-speed community broadband networks enjoy widespread public approval, are improving local economies, and are providing new options for the 30 percent of Americans without broadband access at home.

Rep. Hoitenga claimed as a basis for her bill that Michigan communities were already well-served by private internet service providers. That’s where her argument began to unravel.

First, Rep. Hoitenga claimed that the community of Holland already had 37 broadband Internet providers. As it turns out, that was wrong. The vast majority of Holland residents have just one or two options for broadband Internet. Some Holland businesses have additional options — because the city had been investing in a fiber network and leasing it to private providers.

Next, a glaring factual error was pointed out in her bill, something the chairwoman of the House Technology and Communications Committee should have easily noticed. While Rep. Hoitenga blamed the error on lawyers who actually wrote the bill she introduced, she has yet to explain which lawyers wrote her legislation — or for whom they worked.

Then it was revealed that Rep. Hoitenga had received over $5,000 in campaign contributions from the same telecommunications industry her bill would have benefited. She also dined with members of the Telecommunications Association of Michigan on a trip they paid nearly $1,000 for her to take, according to lobbying disclosures. When presented with these facts, Rep. Hoitenga was again silent.

Despite this instance’s unseemly pay-to-play appearance, the problem goes beyond a single state legislator. This is about a trend sweeping the nation, threatening to erode the power of local governments to enact policies their citizens want. This is about laws being pushed by big-money special interests, turning statehouses into one-stop shops for corporate giveaways.

It’s a tactic called preemption, and it’s destroying the rights of local communities.

There may be times when statewide standards make sense — as a floor, not a ceiling. If a city has a higher cost of living, they should have the right to raise the minimum wage. If a community is concerned about its environment, they should be able to pass stronger protections. And if the market has not provided rural cities and counties with high-speed internet choices, local citizens should be able to vote into office leaders who will publicly invest in their community.

Like their state and federal partners, local governments don’t always get it right. But as the government closest to the people, local officials are held accountable by their constituents on a daily basis — in the grocery store, on date night, at children’s school events, and at easily attended public meetings.

State lawmakers who spend months in Lansing, hundreds of miles from their home districts, are less accountable. Their communications are private. The corporate influence they face is well documented. And the top-down, one-size-fits-all approach legislators like Rep. Hoitenga force cities to accept isn’t just arrogant, it’s anathema to freedom.

Whether on broadband internet, wages, jobs, or the environment, local communities deserve to make their own choices, free from state interference. Ultimately, this is about determining what is more important: the rights of local voters, or the rights of corporate interests.

We clearly see where this representative’s allegiances lie.