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‘Rogue city leaders’: How Republicans are taking power away from mayors

“Next year, if a liberal town … imposes a mask mandate again on businesses throughout the community because of a bad flu virus or the sniffles, everybody would have to abide,” said state Rep. Joseph Chaplik, a freshman lawmaker who is skeptical of the science showing masks help reduce transmission of disease. “If we’re going to give up our freedom and liberties for temporary safety, we’re going to have neither safety nor freedom.”

The strategy used in Arizona has been employed with new intensity by Republicans in states like Texas, Florida and Georgia, where lawmakers over the past year passed legislation preempting the ability of city — and state — leaders to enforce their own regulations. The bigfooting of local officials accelerated as the pandemic turned public health decisions into political minefields, but it also also touched on other wedge issues, like police funding, gun control and climate change.

The move by GOP lawmakers represents a sharp ideological shift for a party that has long championed states rights and local control. Republicans, their influence growing in statehouses and shrinking in cities, see an opening to extend their reach into urban centers. And Democrats, typically the targets of these preemption laws, fear they could be left powerless.

“At the end of the day, we want to give community members the voice to have the policies and laws that they’re voting for local officials to make,” said Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director for the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities, a nonpartisan advocacy group generally opposed to preemption legislation.

“Giving local officials the space is that goal,” he said. “There shouldn’t be these big dichotomies in how policies are being made between state and local.”

As Republicans have maintained a tight hold on the majority of state legislatures, much of today’s preemption battles feature GOP-led assemblies handicapping Democratic-run cities. That dynamic is drawn from the stark partisan divide between statewide and local power: Republicans control 30 state legislatures while Democrats control 64 of the 100 biggest cities in the U.S.

Preemption fights are nothing new. State and local officials have been pitted against each other on what seems like every policy, from soda taxes to minimum wage increases to transgender rights. But in recent years, deep red states have latched onto preemption legislation more and more as a strategy to snatch away power from Democratic city leadership and rally their base.

Take Florida, where the Legislature this session pushed through several major preemption bills, starting with a high-profile “anti-protest” measure as part of the backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement. Buried within the law is a provision checking the ability of counties to redirect funding from police departments and giving the state’s governor the authority to review and reject those budget decisions. Lawmakers also enacted a proposal tightening an existing law forbidding local governments from approving any policies on guns.

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, capitalizing on the conservative resistance to Covid-19 protocols, also issued an executive order waiving fines issued to businesses by local governments for violating Covid-related mandates and signed legislation allowing a governor to preempt local emergency rules.

And now, environmentalists took another hit after DeSantis this week signed a law that preempts local government decisions on energy and makes it difficult for cities to reduce fossil fuels by switching to renewable energy.

“It’s like there’s a competition out there for Florida to be the worst of the worst on these awful preemption laws,” said Brooke Errett, a senior organizer for Food and Water Watch Florida who lobbied against the bill.

Supporters say the bill, backed by oil and gas interests, shouldn’t deter cities from setting or achieving clean energy goals and is in fact needed to prevent them from cutting off natural gas used by homeowners or restricting consumer choice on energy.

Opponents don’t buy that. Rep Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) called the bill a “power play” by utilities and the fossil fuel industry at the expense of solar and other clean energy sources.

Preemption bills protecting fossil fuel interests have surged across the country, with legislation recently passing in 15 states, including Arkansas, Arizona, Iowa and Kentucky. Critics say these laws pose a serious threat to combating air pollution and climate change.

Republicans even succeeded in Kansas despite the state having a Democratic governor. Lamakers muscled through an energy bill this session that preempted parts of a town’s plan that set a goal of shifting all community energy use to renewable energy sources by 2035. It became law without Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s signature due to its passage with a veto-proof majority.

Colorado, which has a legislature controlled by Democrats, is going the opposite direction. Democratic lawmakers have been working to undo some of the major preemption laws on the books. They first repealed a state law prohibiting cities from enacting rules about gun ownership. It was proposed in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a King Soopers supermarket in Boulder in which 10 people were killed.

“Communities should be able to decide what are the right policies to keep them safe,” said Colorado Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, who led the bill’s passage.

The state also enacted a law to ban plastic bags and plastic foam containers used in restaurants and retail. It lifts a ban on local governments setting their own plastics regulations that are stricter than the states. From Pennsylvania to California, political clashes around eliminating widespread use of plastic bags and other single-use items have emerged as some of the most contentious preemption fights in recent memory.

Fenberg views Republicans’ aggressive approach to preemption as a “race to the bottom.”

This debate exposes how deep the ideological split is between the two parties. Republicans see themselves as defending personal choice and freedom, while Democrats argue they are actually the ones advancing those same principles by letting communities self-govern.

“Our job is to protect individuals and protect their liberty,” said North Dakota state Rep. Jeff Hoverson, a Republican who shepherded a law restricting state officials’ ability to enforce mask mandates. It was vetoed by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, but the Legislature overrode it.

“We should be protecting them from not just state government and federal government but local government as well,” he said. “The government needs to have a lot more compelling case than it does to interfere. Really, the S.O.B.’s, they’re wrecking our country.”

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