The Limits of Localism

I took a drive from Helena to Bozeman this week to do a little sight-seeing. Bozeman is one of the fastest growing cities in Montana, and there are certainly problems that come with that distinction.

Exhibit A is the influx of big box stores like Wal-Mart that are becoming a bigger problem for the local community. The Bozeman City Council has been looking at ways to make the company pay for the economic and environmental costs it often imposes on its host community (for more, see this previous post).

According to the Associated Press, the Bozeman City Council “currently has a moratorium on any retail store more than 75,000 square feet in size” and the only way retailers can exceed the limit is by agreeing to fork over cash to the city government that is then used to offset potential economic impacts of their stores.

This commonsense policy seems straightforward. The only problem is, Wal-Mart and its well-connected allies have made the argument that the policy illegally discriminates against big box stores. And, as a new report shows, without a strong state or federal law empowering Bozeman and other communities to stand up to Wal-Mart, it’s possible the mega-store could win that argument in court, and effectively undermine the city council’s ability to regulate the company.

This quandary is a perfect example of why issues surrounding Wal-Mart cannot be wholly solved only at the local level. The company is so powerful, and its reach so pervasive, it requires strong state and federal laws governing its conduct and backing up local regulations. Montana is considering such a state law. Will Washington, D.C. politicians pay attention and follow suit, or will they continue to pocket Wal-Mart’s campaign cash and look the other way?