State vs. city government: A relationship at an 'all-time low'?
A leading expert said tensions have never been higher between the different levels of government, thanks in part to preemptive legislation in various policy areas.
At a Washington, DC event in May, Harvard Kennedy School professor and former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith argued cities are "almost at war with their statehouse," and that "cooperation between cities and their states is at an all-time low."
The differences between city government and their counterparts in state houses have been well-documented, with many blaming ideological differences between traditionally conservative state legislators and more liberal city leaders. Others have said the divide between rural and urban legislators creates rancor in state houses.
But is the relationship at an all-time low? Goldsmith did not respond to repeated requests for further comment, but Mark Pertschuk, director at Grassroots Change, an organization that looks to empower grassroots movements and tracks states’ preemption of local control, believes it is.
Those concerns are shared by the National League of Cities (NLC), which, in a 2017 report, said states have become more aggressive in asserting preemption or their rights under Dillon’s Rule, which states that a local government can only act on something if it is specifically permitted to do so by the state.
"I don't think that the Founding Fathers, it could have ever occurred to them that some idiot in the Arizona legislature or in the legislature in Texas would wholesale challenge local democracy," Pertschuk said. "It just never occurred to them."
Taxation and financial worries
In its analysis, NLC found every state is guilty of preemption in at least one policy area, with taxation and spending being one favorite area for states to undercut cities. And this year, in its State of the Cities report, NLC said many mayors are concerned about the fiscal constraints being placed on them both in terms of states tightening their budgetary belts and preventing cities from raising new taxes.
In his “State of the City” speech cited by NLC, North Ridgeville, OH Mayor David Gillock said new state laws that set back estimated income tax payment due dates “interfere with the authority of Ohio municipalities to administer, collect, audit and receive critical municipal tax dollars.”
And state governments appear to have cut back on funding levels for all manner of things, including major infrastructure projects and education. Meridian, ID Mayor Tammy de Weerd promised in her own State of the City speech cited by NLC to continue to advocate with our state leaders to step up their ‘mandated’ funding to the levels needed,” as property taxes in cities “shouldn’t have to fill the gaps.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was even more cynical about the levels of state funding cities can expect, saying at the Smart Cities New York conference that state governments are now “basically Medicaid and prisons” and not much else.
And it can leave cities frustrated, especially when they are asked by President Donald Trump and his administration to take on more of the funding responsibility for initiatives like improving infrastructure.
“We had a snow emergency, we had a transportation emergency, a family emergency, a homelessness emergency,” Lawrence, MA Mayor Daniel Rivera told Smart Cities Dive in an interview. “I said to [Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker], 'How many emergencies gets us a 1% tax increase?' At some point, you've got to pay for this stuff.”
In other states, cities have felt under attack from state legislators and that their power has been eroded. Pertschuk said the most egregious example of this is in Arizona, where he said the legislature is "quite literally at war with all the subdivisions of the state, not just cities and counties but primarily cities and counties.”
Critics say those attacks manifested themselves in a 2016 law, SB1487, which allowed any state legislator to ask the Arizona Attorney General to investigate a city law or regulation they feel does not comply with state law. Supporters of the bill said it was to make sure cities and counties stayed within state law, and to make sure there were adequate punishments if they did not.
In response to the legislation, the League of Arizona Cities and Towns wrote a letter to Gov. Doug Ducey urging him to veto the bill. The league said the bill was “heavy-handed, intrusive and minimizes the important role of local elected officials.” They also criticized the bill for taking away shared revenues as a penalty and creating “an atmosphere of hostility and mistrust.”
Pertschuk said it has been a similar story in Texas, where he said Gov. Greg Abbott has been "quite honest and transparent" about wanting to simply eliminate all local authority. The city of Denton, TX became the first in the state to ban fracking inside its city limits after a 2014 vote by its residents, but almost immediately the state legislature passed a bill preempting the authority of municipalities to regulate various energy development activities, which included fracking.
Given Texas’ diversity and strong history of local control, Pertschuk said it was a surprising development, especially when coupled with Abbott’s apparent desire to undermine cities’ ability to self-govern. "They're going against a tradition that goes back to the very founding of the state," Pertschuk said. Laredo, TX was in the Texas Supreme Court this week battling the state — and losing — over a plastic bag ban.
"I don't think that the Founding Fathers, it could have ever occurred to them that some idiot in the Arizona legislature or in the legislature in Texas would wholesale challenge local democracy”
Director, Grassroots Change
Politicking and revenge
While it is not so straightforward to blame the ideological divide between city and state governments as the only reason for any splits, it weighs heavily on some city leaders.
Rivera said during an NLC event that in Massachusetts and the wider New England region, politicians look to score points by blaming Lawrence for issues like the opioid crisis and income inequality. “All these Governors and the President have this book called ‘Gin Up Their Base’ and that involves kicking Lawrence around,” he said.
And cities must always be wary of a vengeful state house. At an event in Washington, DC hosted by the NLC earlier this month, Memphis, TN Mayor Jack Strickland recalled controversy earlier this year after the city sold parks containing Confederate statues to a private entity, which then removed them.
It led to some punishment from lawmakers in state capital Nashville, who passed an amendment to a state appropriations bill taking away $250,000 in funds to help the city celebrate its bicentennial. And during debate, it exposed some fault lines in the Tennessee House. "Memphis is a city in this state, and I'm sick of people in this House acting like it's not," state Rep. Raumesh Akbari said at the time, according to CNN.
But Strickland took a more positive view and worked hard to avoid any more damage, and he said that it was otherwise a good session, and the city maintains a good relationship with state lawmakers despite the financial punishment. “While we would have appreciated that money, we’ll find it some other place,” he said in a speech.
Why has state preemption happened?
For Pertschuk, this trend of state preemption of cities goes back to one thing — campaign contributions made by large companies and interest groups that make state legislators more inclined to support them on certain issues over constituents. Three decades ago, he said, companies wanted to “buy off Congress, which they largely succeeded with, probably beyond their expectations.”
Since then, the focus has shifted to state legislators, which Pertschuk called a “systematic and successful effort to purchase,” and a desire to give to anyone who will take their money regardless of party affiliation. Those companies then are “calling in the chips” and "cashing in on their financial investment in the state legislatures," making sure that laws that will negatively affect them do not pass.
"The people that are making minimum wage in Wisconsin can't make hundreds of thousands of dollars of political contributions, whereas [the American Legislative Exchange Council] and the Chamber of Commerce, the NRA and Pepsi and Coke and the huge wholesalers of soda can together fund an entire state Senate campaign,” Pertschuk said.
Reasons to be cheerful?
But in some instances, there are reasons for optimism that cities are not totally at odds with their state governments, particularly in policy areas like transportation.
This year alone, the Georgia state legislature approved a bill creating the Atlanta Regional Transit Link Authority (ATL) for metropolitan Atlanta, helping the 13 counties that make up the area to better coordinate regional transit planning. It will allow counties to ask voters for a 1% sales tax to finance transit projects in their communities and is also charged with producing a regional transportation plan.
Similarly, this year the Virginia and Maryland General Assemblies approved bills to dedicate funding to the Washington, DC Metro system for the first time, in addition to companion legislation from the DC Council. The $500 million in new, dedicated funds was hailed by MetroNow, a coalition of business and nonprofit leaders, as a victory for cooperation. “This is nothing short of a major, historic victory for our region,” the group said in a statement last month.
Pertschuk, meanwhile, said he is “moderately optimistic” about the future, especially with new energy coming into politics on both sides of the aisle. He pointed to Florida gubernatorial candidate and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum as one example, who challenged state preemption of local firearms laws banning their use in public parks and won in court. In a statement announcing a slew of endorsements from local elected officials, the Democrat said “cities are hurting from the damage done by 20 years of Republican control in the Governor’s mansion and the legislature.”
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