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Govern Yourselves, State Lawmakers Tell Cities, but Not Too Much

Publication Date: 2/23/2015
  • Author:SHAILA DEWAN
  • Publication:New York Times

Darren Hodges, a Tea Party Republican and councilman in the windy West Texas city of Fort Stockton, is a fierce defender of his town's decision to ban plastic bags. It was a local solution to a local problem and one, he says, city officials had a "God-given right" to make.

But the power of Fort Stockton and other cities to govern themselves is under attack in the state capital, Austin. The new Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has warned that several cities are undermining the business friendly "Texas model" with a patchwork of ill-conceived regulations. Conservative legislators, already angered by a ban on fracking that was enacted by popular vote in the town of Denton last fall, quickly followed up with a host of bills to curtail local power...

His salvo caught Texas cities by surprise. But pre-empting the power of local governments is becoming a standard part of the legislative playbook in many states where Republicans who control statehouses are looking to block or overturn the actions of leaders, and even voters, in municipalities that are often more liberal.

So-called pre-emption laws, passed in states across the country, have banned cities from regulating landlords, building municipal broadband systems and raising the minimum wage. In the last two years, eight Republican-dominated states, most recently Alabama and Oklahoma, have prevented cities from enacting paid sick leave for workers. Already this year, bills introduced in six more states, including Michigan, Missouri and South Carolina, seek to do the same. At least five states have pre-empted local regulation of e-cigarettes. And in New Mexico, the restaurant industry supports a modest increase to the minimum wage only if the state stops cities from mandating higher minimums.

Often these efforts are driven by industry, which finds it easier to wield influence in 50 capitols than in thousands of city halls, said Mark Pertschuk, the director of Grassroots Change, which opposes the pre-emption of public health measures.

The strategy was pioneered by tobacco companies 30 years ago to override local smoking bans. It was perfected by the National Rifle Association, which has succeeded in preventing local gun regulations in almost every state...