State efforts to undercut local governance widen in scope
Lawmakers have introduced upwards of 650 bills this year preempting the power of cities and other local governments, says a new report. These bills are broad in their approach, looking to “cut out local authority at-large.”
Conservative state lawmakers across the country are growing bolder in passing laws that limit the powers of local governments, a liberal group warned in a recent report.
State legislators have introduced at least 650 “abusive” preemption bills so far this year that usurp the power of cities and other local governments in setting their own policies, according to the Local Solutions Support Center (LSSC).
That number could grow, as many state legislatures are still meeting and could advance more restrictions. Last year, the group found more than 1,000 bills that targeted local government power, compared with 475 in 2021.
But it’s not just the number of bills that alarmed liberal local officials; it’s also the scope of those measures, explained Katie Belanger, lead consultant at LSSC and the author of the report.
For example, Florida lawmakers this year sent Gov. Ron DeSantis a bill to allow companies to sue local governments for passing “arbitrary or unreasonable” policies. A separate measure in Texas would explicitly prevent local governments from passing laws dealing with broad issues regulated at the state level. People or companies could even sue those local governments if they were “injured” by the regulations.
The reach of those bills, in other words, far exceed the most expansive legislation from just a few years ago. For example, Republicans who controlled the Michigan Legislature in 2015 turned heads when they blocked local governments from making laws about wages and working conditions, Belanger said.
“We’re not talking about one specific issue. We’re talking about preemption that is being used to cut out local authority at-large. It’s really just gutting local governance completely,” she said.
Even for more focused bills, Belanger said, conservative lawmakers have expanded the kinds of activities that they are preempting local governments from regulating.
When Republicans swept to power in state capitols following the 2010 elections, she said, they focused on overturning local ordinances that big industries didn’t like: minimum wage laws, plastic bag bans, ride-sharing regulations or efforts to develop municipal broadband.
In the last few years, though, they’ve expanded to social issues.
“It’s not just the minimum wage now. We’re seeing critical race theory. We’re seeing anti-protest bills. We’re seeing efforts to [rein in] prosecutorial discretion and efforts to address criminal justice reform. We’re seeing preemption being abused in very specific ways to stop progress, particularly around reckoning with our racist history,” she said.
Belanger said that preemption could be necessary when it forces state or local governments to guarantee civil rights. But she’s concerned with “abusive preemption” that disproportionately harms people of color, women, LGBTQ people, immigrants and working-class residents.
For example, state lawmakers introduced more than 500 pieces of legislation this spring targeting LGBTQ people.
“That makes 2023 another dangerous year for LGBTQ+ people nationwide—particularly transgender youth. Many of those bills involve preemption, either banning or threatening punitive action against schools and local governments that otherwise want to protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination,” she wrote in the report.
On abortion, lawmakers considered bills that would ban insurance for municipal employees that covered abortion or withdraw support for clinics that offer abortions.
Several states also considered new rules to limit the power of election administrators or laws that would have prevented cities from using ranked choice voting in their municipal elections.
On housing, conservatives sought to prevent localities from enacting rent control, guaranteeing certain tenant rights or requiring landlords to accept housing vouchers. Many statewide Democrats have also tried to preempt local regulations when it comes to housing, particularly when it involves local opposition to building apartments or other new dwellings in states such as California, Colorado, Massachusetts and New York that face housing shortages.
Belanger said the LSSC did not consider those Democrats’ statewide efforts to be “abusive preemption,” because they did not target vulnerable communities.
While most of the efforts involved Republicans trying to constrain Democratic local officials, municipal leaders of all partisan leanings should be worried about the increase in preemption ideas, she said. “When one city loses power, they all lose power.”
Belanger said the increased interest in local preemption fit into a broader pattern of state officials taking local matters into their own hands. Republicans have targeted or removed local prosecutors in Georgia, Florida and Missouri. They have taken over Houston’s school system, effectively sidelining its elected board. They expanded a state-run police force in Jackson, Mississippi, rather than help the underfunded local department.
“Abusive preemption is part and parcel of broader efforts to erode our democracy,” Belanger said. It is often used alongside other ways to limit the voices of political opponents, including gerrymandering, voting rights, removing officials from office and curtailing the scope of citizen-led ballot initiatives. “Folks are trying to close every door that we have to make change in this country.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.
NEXT STORY: Republicans unemployment fraud bill passes House, gets Senate version