Republican State Governments Increasingly Overruling Laws Passed by City and County Governments

Monday, May 25, 2015
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (photo: Tony Gutierrez-AP)

The conservative view that government is best when closest to the governed doesn’t seem to apply when local governments, closely reflecting the will of their voters, try to regulate big business. At least not in states run by Republicans.


Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on May 18 signed a bill that would preempt municipalities’ right to regulate fracking within their borders. Residents of the North Texas city of Denton last year voted to ban fracking within city limits, spurring the oil and gas industry to persuade its friends in the Texas legislature to ban the bans.


“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,” Abbott said Monday, according to Courthouse News Service. “HB 40 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.”


To some, however, it’s a usurpation of long-time municipal interest in deciding what’s best for a community. “The bill guts 100 years of traditional municipal authority to regulate oil and gas operations,” A. Scott Anderson, a senior policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund, told The Wall Street Journal.


The irony is that a patchwork quilt of state regulation appears to be what’s preferred by the same people, who usually oppose federal efforts to ensure the health and welfare of Americans.


“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 Fort Stockton, Texas, councilman and Tea Party Republican, told The New York Times. His West Texas town banned plastic grocery bags and has since come under fire from the state government for that regulation.


Texas isn’t the only state to engage in preemption. Other states’ Republican-controlled legislatures have seemed just as eager to comply with the wishes of their corporate donors:



  • Missouri’s legislature passed a law banning local ordinances that outlaw plastic grocery bags.



  • Utah preempted a Salt Lake City ordinance that required drive-thru restaurants to serve customers on bicycles—until the restaurant industry forced lawmakers to reverse themselves.




More often than not—and perhaps not surprisingly—the impetus for these state actions is money. If citizens of a town vote to pass a law that collaterally impedes the flow of revenue to business, even if that law is for the public good, that is usually a red flag in the eyes of conservative legislatures that the law should be shut down.


In the last five years there have been 15 states that have instituted bans on local minimum wages. In the last two years there have been eight Republican state governments that have passed laws to stop municipalities from requiring that businesses provide their employees paid sick leave. (Missouri has forbid requiring vacation or health, disability and retirement benefits, as well.)


Following in the footsteps of an Arkansas law, six states have introduced bills blocking local efforts to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination. In states with large agricultural business interests, city regulations of certain seeds have been quashed.


The new Texas law that shields fracking from bills to regulate it has spearheaded similar efforts in other states, including Colorado, New Mexico, and Ohio. In Oklahoma, the full legislature has passed a bill that prohibits local governments from imposing restrictions on gas and oil operations unless they are considered to be “reasonable.” That legislation came about in direct response to the voter-approved fracking ban in Denton.


“It’s a bad situation when city leaders’ hands are tied,” Denton Councilman Kevin Roden told The Wall Street Journal. “There seems to be an attitude that big state government knows better than the citizens of a city.”


Some preemption laws are backed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative group funded by the Koch brothers and other businesses. ALEC writes model legislation that some Republican legislators copy and paste into bills they introduce.


The courts have by and large been backing state governments’ efforts to overturn or block local ordinances. This year the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that local laws regulating energy development cannot stand in the face of state laws. An ordinance passed in Mora County, New Mexico, was overturned on appeal by the state. The exception, so far, has been Pennsylvania, where the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of city efforts to regulate drilling, effectively overturning a state law to curtail them.


One Texas lawmaker wants to go further by passing a blanket law that expressly bans municipalities from any and all regulations not specifically allowed by the state. According to Shaila Dewan of The New York Times, the Texas Municipal League warned that this “super pre-emption” bill could even affect restrictions on where sex offenders can live.

-Steve Straehley, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

Texas Prohibits Local Fracking Bans (by Russell Gold, Wall Street Journal)

States Saying ‘No’ to Cities Seeking To Regulate Businesses (by David A. Lieb, Associated Press)

States Are Blocking Local Regulations, Often at Industry’s Behest (by Shaila Dewan, New York Times)

Texas Squashes City’s Fracking Ban (by David Lee, Courthouse News Service)


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