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State Legislatures Are Trying to Run America’s Cities

Texas is not alone. Across the country, state legislatures are meddling in urban policy. That's a big problem for democracy.
By Peter Simek |
Photo by Stuart Seeger via Flickr.

Perhaps this whole conversation about what kind of government Dallas should have will soon be irrelevant. According to a new report in Governing, over the past decades, state governments have become increasingly aggressive in stepping in to exert influence over local policy matters. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as emergency orders have given state officials more control over local jurisdictions than usual, this trend has only accelerated.

This is not news for Texans. Dallas officials and Texas legislators have been butting heads for years over local control on issues ranging from cellphone regulations to sanctuary cities. The most recent confrontation has come over policing. Last year, the city of Austin repurposed funds from its public safety budget to convert two downtown hotels into housing for the homeless. That prompted Gov. Greg Abbott to suggest the state take over the policing of the center of Austin. The governor also supports legislation that would prohibit local governments from cutting their police budgets.

Talk about a nanny state – but Texas is not alone:

A 2018 survey found that 70 percent of local health officials and 60 percent of mayors had abandoned or delayed policies due to the threat of state preemption. The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated health preemption efforts. Bills have been introduced in roughly half the states to put new limits on public health authority, including their ability to shut businesses or impose mask mandates.

So, what gives?

I believe it goes beyond questions of jurisdiction and governance. The conflict between state and local governments is only the latest front in the ongoing culture wars that characterize an increasingly divided United States – a country that, regardless of what Bruce Springsteen says in a Super Bowl ad, has separated into ideological camps with radically different ideas about the nature of the rights and liberties guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. It’s no surprise, after all, that the issues that state governments around the country want to control tend to relate to broader cultural divides in the country, typically setting right-leaning state governments against broadly left-leaning local governments.

That includes policing, as well as health and education. States have threatened to withhold funding for public schools unless they reopened for in-person classes during the pandemic. States have also limited local governments from passing regulations around minimum wage, gun control, environmental issues, and gay and transgender rights. But it doesn’t stop there. “Although such high-profile battles have drawn the most attention, preemption has become habitual in some states,” Governing reports, “with legislators looking to micromanage areas such as parking regulation and building design requirements.”

Far from micromanaging, I would argue that issues like parking and urban design possess the power to ensconce in law ideas about social conventions, lifestyle, and cultural identity. Proponents of increased state control over local governments often use “rights” language to justify their meddling. Addressing a bill in the Missouri state legislature that would limit the authority of local health authorities, Missouri Sen. Andrew Koenig expressed concern that local government agencies inhibit perceived rights and liberties. “It’s very simple: People have constitutional rights,” Sen. Koenig says. “I don’t know why local control means that the local government can do whatever they want, even if it means violating people’s rights.”

It’s this justification for state overreach that I find most revealing – and concerning.

After all, what Sen. Koenig is essentially asserting is a new role for state legislative bodies. Rather than leaving the question of the constitutionality of local laws and regulations to the courts, state legislatures are claiming that power for themselves. As Governing points out, these exertions of state control over local matters are often paternalistic, “with state officials convinced they know better than mayors and county commissioners about what policies work on the ground.”

I would go further than that. State legislative attempts to override the authority of local governments strip communities of their right to self-governance. Particularly in a state like Texas, where rural and suburban communities exert outsized influence in shaping policy at the state level, state-set limits to local governmental control deny urban Texans their voice and representation on the local issues that often have the greatest impact on their lives and communities. It shouldn’t be a surprise that, too frequently, these are issues that disproportionately affect people of color. “You have these predominantly white state legislators making decisions and setting ceilings that keep communities of color from putting into place policies,” says Julia Wolfe, an analyst with the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, who spoke to Governing.

Seen through the lens of race and history, the trend is also reflective of the ways in which the strategies of American conservatism are evolving. During the 1960s, arguments against federal overreach and in favor local control were used by opponents of desegregation, while civil rights leaders fought for the expansion of civil liberties by making judicial appeals to Constitutionally protected rights. Now, under the guise of protecting a particular interpretation of civil liberties, conservative state legislatures are limiting local control over policies they find ideologically repellent.

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