NLC: State Government Limiting More Municipal Activities


A new report from the National League of Cities looks at the growth of state-level preemption laws. More states have been passing laws that limit municipal activities in an effort to force metropolitan areas to align with state policy prerogatives. The NLC report examines several key areas where preemption is on the rise including: minimum wage, paid leave, anti-discrimination, home sharing, ride sharing, municipal broadband, and tax and expenditure limitations (TELs).

Preemption bills often concern politically divisive issues and rely on single party dominance to pass through state legislatures. As of the 2016 election cycle, Republicans have 25 government trifectas, meaning they control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office, while Democrats have trifectas in six states and control a larger portion of city halls.

According to the report, expansive one party control at the state level predictably produces preemption laws that align with specific party platforms. On minimum wage for example, 24 states now block municipalities from setting their own minimum wage. Minimum wage preemption became more popular after cities like Seattle were successful in establishing a phased-in increase to a $15/hr living wage rule despite a lower minimum wage at the state level.

Preemption has also been a popular tool to limit paid family and medical leave. 17 states have passed measures that block municipalities from requiring things like paid sick days after some cities started to take action on their own in lieu of state or national policy.

As CivSource has reported extensively, states have also been very active in using preemption laws to block municipal broadband networks, choosing instead to align policy with the telecommunications lobby.

“Our research points to the complex, and sometimes tenuous, relationship between cities and state legislatures,” said NLC’s Senior Executive and Director of the Center for City Solutions and report co-author Brooks Rainwater, in a statement on the report. “People who live in cities want control over their own destinies and when states seek blanket policies that run counter to the values of its municipalities, local leaders do not stand down. We see many instances where state-level politicians work to usurp the will of people in cities both through preemption and Dillon’s Rule provisions. As a result, the work of city leaders and the mandate of the people is undermined.”

The NLC report offers a few recommendations for municipalities attempting to work around the issue of preemption. Report authors recommend that municipal leaders engage with state lawmakers in order to make sure that they stay aware of critical localized issues and local values. Mayors will also need to pick their preemption battles carefully in order to avoid a constant tug of war between state and local government.

Mayors may also want to start looking at ways of changing the narrative around preemption. The report notes that preemption often takes on a positive view if a city is perceived to be “out of control” relative to the rest of the state. Proactive mayors can get ahead of the potential damage of that point of view by reinforcing the positive contributions cities make to the state as a whole.

The full report is available here.