In his early February state of the city address, Mayor Steve Schewel of Durham, North Carolina, was blunt with his constituents: “Here is a hard truth we must face: Despite our best efforts, Durham will not reach its true greatness while our state government weakens environmental protections, drops teacher pay to the bottom of the heap, refuses to expand Medicaid, attacks the right to vote and snatches away the powers of cities to determine our own future.”
NLC’s annual survey of state of the city speeches found that Durham is not alone in its issues with its state, and that Mayor Schewel isn’t the only one talking about it. Across the country, local priorities are running into state obstruction. NLC’s analysis found that these issues of “intergovernmental relations” rose to prominence as one of the top ten subtopics covered by mayors in their 2018 speeches. Mentions ranged from direct state interference such as preemption, to fiscal constraints that result from state action.
It’s not a surprise that mayors are talking more about state interference. Local government is increasingly hobbled by state laws. Earlier this year, NLC updated a report on state preemption, City Rights in an Era of Preemption, and found that across 50 states and seven policy areas, 19 new preemptive laws were passed in 2017 alone.
Preemption is the use of state law to nullify a municipal ordinance or authority. States are using it to prevent or reverse local policy innovations, from minimum wage increases to the regulation of the sharing economy.
Even beyond the number of enacted bills, municipalities and city attorneys are constantly playing defense during state legislative sessions to beat back all of the proposed preemption bills. The mayor of Winter Park, Florida was outspoken on the causes of the recent uptick in preemptive laws in his home state: “Members of the Florida House and Senate have chosen leadership, party, lobbyists and their own selfish interests over the constituents that elected them.” Across the country, preemption’s rise shares similar causes: 34 statehouses have single-party rule, special interest lobbying at the state level has grown, and spatial sorting between urban and rural areas has created stark divides on policy preferences.
Indeed, states can be supportive of the fact that local priorities are closely tied to local conditions. Charleston, SC, a waterfront tourist hot spot, needs to invest in climate resiliency, so the mayor is, “asking the state legislature to give us the freedom to move existing tourism dollars from accommodations and hospitality fees into flooding and drainage.” Such flexibility preserves the ability of city officials to solve problems in their communities.
The conversation mayors are starting about local authority is an important one. When people are educated about the limits that states are putting on local government, they side with their mayors and councils. And as constituents understand the impacts of state interference, they can come together against it. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett stressed the need to convert the economic power of the city into political power in the statehouse: “It is time for the governor, and the legislature, to empower Milwaukee residents to decide for themselves how to fund the services they need. I look to the business community and all of you to support this. Milwaukee is the economic engine of this state, sending so much more money to Madison than we get in return. It’s time we have a real say in our financial future.”
Cities deserve that ability to determine their future — especially at a time of such uncertainty. Local leaders can see new emerging problems in their communities and are eager to solve them. State governments can help this local innovation thrive — but at the very least they shouldn’t get in the way.
About the Author: Alex Jones is the manager of NLC’s Local Democracy Initiative, where his work focuses on unveiling the extent and effect of state intervention in city governance. Previously, he was a senior policy analyst at the Brookings Institution and strategic adviser to its Centennial Scholar Initiative.