Over the past year, conservative state legislatures have begun to more aggressively assert the centralized power of the state, acting to preempt or overrule liberal ordinances passed by cities and local municipalities.
The issues have often involved partisan power struggles. These have included rights for LGBT residents, higher minimum wage laws, fracking restrictions, and the use of plastic grocery bags, which some environmentally minded localities have tried to ban.
For many Republicans, who generally favor a political philosophy that emphasizes the authority of local governance, it’s created an internal tension: Which conservative principle should govern – a belief in smaller government and local control, or the issue at hand?
Lawmakers who have passed such efforts say they are attempts to avoid “political subdivisions” or a “patchwork quilt” of regulations that differ from municipality to municipality within a given state. But tea party members have pushed back, calling the practice hypocritical, and it’s created a backlash in the cities, where residents have been angered by the overriding of their wishes.
“It’s interesting, Republicans generally tend to be for the devolution of power to state and local levels,” says Andrew Taylor, professor of political science at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “And then ... in North Carolina and other states, for example, you see Republicans not doing that – in this case, overruling city ordinances.”
For the most part, Professor Taylor says, such issues reveal longstanding partisan divides, as well as those between residents in more liberal cities and suburbs and those in small towns and rural areas in conservative states, especially when it comes to social issues.
This week, Republican lawmakers in North Carolina convened a special session to overrule a local anti-discrimination ordinance passed by Charlotte, the state’s largest city. City officials had passed a law that included civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender residents. It also allowed people to use public bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity.
The whirlwind Republican response – introduced, passed, and signed into law in a single day – has once again erupted into a national furor over long-standing culture war issues. The new law overrides local ordinances to create a single statewide anti-discrimination policy that does not include LGBT residents. It also requires transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond to the gender on their birth certificates.
And like many other conservative states, North Carolina Republicans also preempted any local minimum wage bills, prohibiting local governments from raising wages within their jurisdictions.
On Monday, conservative lawmakers in Idaho prohibited “political subdivisions,” barring municipalities from requiring wages higher than the state-sanctioned minimum. Last month, Alabama Republicans shut down the efforts of Birmingham to raise the municipal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, joining 19 other mostly conservative states to ban local minimum wage hikes, according to the National Employment Law Project, a liberal advocacy group in New York.
But business interests have also led Republicans to assert state control in many instances over the past year. Last May, Texas Republicans barred local municipalities from regulating fracking within their borders, after the city of Denton voted to ban the practice within its city limits.
“This law ensures that Texas avoids a patchwork quilt of regulations that differ from region to region, differ from county to county or city to city,” said Gov. Greg Abbott (R) last year. The law “strikes a meaningful and correct balance between local control and preserving the state’s authority to ensure that regulations are even-handed and do not hamper job creation.”
Yet some tea party Republicans were angered by the state’s efforts to curb local authority.
“It has seemed hypocritical that the state wants the federal government to give the states more power, yet at the state level, they want to take power away from cities and counties,” Darren Hodges, a tea party councilman in Fort Stockton, told The New York Times last year, after the state’s business-friendly state legislature preempted local bans on plastic grocery bags. Local officials, he said, had a “God-given right” to make such community regulations.
Preemption laws passed by Republican dominated legislatures have also barred regulations on landlords, paid sick leave, and even tried to prevent municipalities from building broadband systems, experts note.
And conservative-run states such as Tennessee, Arkansas, and Indiana also have preempted local attempts to pass anti-discrimination ordinances for LGBT residents.
“North Carolina's passage of a law to prevent localities from enacting local anti-discrimination laws is part of a trend in conservative states to block these democratic initiatives,” civil rights attorney Tom Spiggle told U.S. News and World Report on Thursday.
Professor Taylor points out that many states are governed by the constitutional principle called the “Dillon Rule,” based on a Supreme Court ruling. The rule invests power in state governments rather than local authorities, unless there are explicit “home rule” provisions in state law. North Carolina, like nearly 40 other US states, is governed by the Dillon Rule, giving state authorities supreme power.
Republican legislators in North Carolina were unanimous in their support for the new law that overturns Charlotte’s LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance and preempts minimum wage hikes. Senate Democrats walked out during the vote, and many decried state power overturning local governance.
“This is a direct affront to equality, civil rights, and local autonomy,” said Dan Blue, the state’s Senate Democratic leader.