Traffic moves past the skyline of Houston in June 2020.
CNN  — 

Republican-controlled states have escalated their offensive against Democratic-controlled cities and counties this year to unprecedented heights, further deepening the trench between red and blue America.

From Key West, Florida, to Bozeman, Montana, from Atlanta to Houston, local communities predominantly governed by Democrats have seen more of their policy decisions overridden by Republican legislatures and governors.

This surge of state preemption began with aggressive efforts by Republican governors to override local public health rules during the coronavirus pandemic, but in this year’s legislative session it has spread to cover a panoramic range of issues. GOP-run states have reversed local decisions on everything from voting rules to police funding levels, from policies on homelessness and energy to zoning and fees on developers. In Key West’s case, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature even overturned a local ballot initiative barring giant cruise ships from docking in the small community.

“The level of preemption is only growing,” says Brooks Rainwater, director of the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities. “We are just seeing this happen all throughout the country.”

The increased frequency of preemption dramatizes the widening political divide between large metropolitan areas – which are voting increasingly Democratic in virtually every state – and exurban, small-town and rural areas – which have become the contrasting foundation of the GOP coalition. In all the states most aggressively overriding local decisions, Republicans who have gained control of state government largely through their dominance of smaller places are using that leverage to countermand the decisions of larger metro areas that are trending away from them politically, even as they grow more dominant in driving their states’ economic growth and innovation.

As Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, the most frequent target for Republicans in the Texas Legislature, told me last weekend, “There is a [long-standing] difference in priorities” between urban and rural parts of the state, but traditionally most of those differences have been treated as “local decisions for local communities to make.” Now, he says, working through the state legislature and governor, “local communities around the state are trying to impose their values, their priorities, on Austin.”

And in that effort, there now appears to be virtually no area of local policy exempt from the intensifying instinct among red state legislators and governors to intervene.

“What you don’t see is any sense of constraint,” says Richard Briffault, a Columbia University Law School professor who studies local preemption. “What’s so striking now is as soon as an issue gets hot it gets translated into this debate.”

In a 2018 law review article, Briffault documented how state preemption of local decisions has increased since the GOP made extensive gains in state legislatures and governorships during the 2010 midterm elections. “The ‘new preemption’ runs the gamut of legislative subjects,” he wrote, “from hot-button social issues like firearms regulation, sanctuary cities, and the rights of transgender individuals; to workplace disputes over wages, leave policies, and scheduling, to ostensibly more prosaic subjects like plastic bags, menu labeling, residential sprinkler systems, and puppy mills.”

And while Democratic-controlled states have occasionally preempted decisions by local governments, he added, “the preponderance of … preemptive actions and proposals have been advanced by Republican-dominated state governments, embrace conservative economic and social causes, and … are designed to block – relatively progressive regulatory actions adopted by activist cities and counties.”

Intensified pushback in 2021

In an interview, Briffault said he felt the wave of preemption “had plateaued around 2018” but resumed with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic last year. Governors everywhere agreed to shut down at least part of the economy for some period of time. But under pressure from Republican then-President Donald Trump to reopen the economy as quickly and widely as possible, Republican governors – particularly Sun Belt chief executives like Ron DeSantis in Florida, Brian Kemp in Georgia, Greg Abbott in Texas and Doug Ducey in Arizona – repeatedly overrode decisions by big-city, mostly Democratic mayors to lock down their communities, limit hours that businesses could operate and fine those who did not wear masks in public.

“We saw states really push back at giving local authorities the capacity to run their communities the way they saw fit,” says Rainwater.

That heightened aggression from GOP governors and legislatures toward the decisions of big city metros rolled into this year’s legislative sessions. One new area of conflict came over police funding in the aftermath of last year’s wave of racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. Republican legislators and governors in Florida, Georgia and Texas all passed laws making it more difficult for local governments to cut funding from their police budgets. Abbott signed a law last week that requires counties to win public referendums before they can cut police budgets but applies that requirement only to counties of at least 1 million in population, almost all of which lean Democratic.

Adler, Rainwater and others say the votes to constrain how local governments set their own budget priorities represents a new level of interference from state governments.

“To actually dig into a budget of a locality and to say this area can have spending on it vs. another area, that to me feels very new,” Rainwater says.

Other preemption laws have limited cities’ abilities to respond to their own growth and development. In Florida, DeSantis last week signed legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature that severely constrains municipal and county governments from assessing “impact fees” on developers that require them to contribute to the costs of new roads, schools or infrastructure that their developments necessitate; the bill even retroactively rescinded such fees approved this year, a move that benefited the developers of The Villages, the staunchly Republican retirement community in Central Florida.

Republicans in Montana imposed comparable limits on larger cities there. When Republican Greg Gianforte won the Montana governorship last fall (succeeding Democrat Steve Bullock, who ran for US Senate and lost), the GOP achieved unified control of state government. With that power, the Republicans this spring passed a new state law barring cities from implementing “inclusive zoning” policies that require developers to build a certain amount of low- and moderate-income housing for each market-rate property they construct.

“We have the fastest-growing micropolitan community, which is under 50,000, in the country,” Bozeman Mayor Cyndy Andrus said in an interview. “But when you don’t have places for people to live, people that, for example, could make $90,000 or $100,000 but can’t afford to buy a house here, that is a problem. And when you have the legislature taking away your tool, like inclusionary zoning … that has huge economic impact. People can’t afford to live here, even though the jobs are here for them.”

Greg Gianforte in a 2017 file photo

The GOP-led Legislature then tightened the vise from another direction when it rejected a Democratic-sponsored proposal to allow local communities to put referendums before their voters to impose sales taxes on nonessential items. Montana is one of the only states without statewide sales taxes and some local governments, like Bozeman, have argued that creating local sales taxes was the best way to ensure that the large number of tourists passing through the communities contribute to their infrastructure and services. But the Legislature, dominated by Republicans, especially from the state’s more conservative (and less densely populated) eastern half, rejected the proposal. Underlining the point, the Legislature repealed a law allowing local governments to impose fuel taxes.

“In the eastern part of the state … it’s hard for them to understand why we want some of the things we want in Bozeman because we are growing so quickly,” Andrus says. “They don’t necessarily have those problems. If you take away inclusionary zoning, in the eastern part of the state they are not seeing that as a huge issue.”

(The job of Bozeman’s mayor is “a nonpartisan office,” she says. “I would say that I lean more on the progressive end because I think that represents the city of Bozeman itself.”)

Battling over the purse strings

Local governments in Texas face a similar fiscal squeeze. Before passing the legislation in this session essentially blocking local governments from cutting police budgets, the GOP Legislature and governor had approved a bill in 2019 severely capping how much those governments can raise through the property tax, their principal source revenue. Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a Democratic former state senator, says the GOP-led Legislature has put local governments in an untenable position by reducing the state’s contribution to public K-12 and higher education and then “handcuffing” the locals from raising enough revenue to meet the needs.

“They don’t want to fund it, so they push the responsibility to other units of government, but then they tie their hands,” he says. Adler, the Austin mayor, likewise says the state has “capped property tax increases at a level that is lower than the increase of our cost drivers due to inflation and salary increases. We’re not able to maintain existing programs.”

The limits on local taxes, fees and regulatory authority have been driven not only by ideological objections from GOP legislators, but also in many cases by concerted lobbying from business interests. The Republican legislators who pushed the measures to block impact fees in Florida and inclusionary zoning in Montana both had ties to real estate interests. Big cruise and hotel interests pushed the measure that passed the Florida Legislature and is expected to soon be signed by DeSantis to override last November’s vote in Key West to block large ships from docking; another corporate campaign persuaded the Legislature last year to override a Key West ban on certain types of sunscreen that have been linked to damage in delicate coral reefs.

“You typically see corporate interests behind the preemption of things like the sunscreen and the cruise ships” regulation, says Ben Wilcox, research director of Integrity Florida, a group that lobbies for ethics reform in state government. “It really is a situation where preemption is being used as a strategy. For a corporate industry that is subject to local regulation in some way it’s much easier for them to preempt that regulation at the state level than to go fight a battle in every locality.”

Overturning local regulations on business interests has been a consistent theme in the past decade’s wave of preemption. More novel, Briffault notes, is that the impulse for GOP-run states to overturn decisions by Democratic localities has spread to so many issues.

“You don’t see it in every state, but in the states that want to do it, in a state like Florida, they seem to be willing to preempt almost everything,” he says.

Republican-controlled states this year have blocked local governments from allowing homeless encampments (Texas), overturned limits on campaign contributions for local elections (Florida) and barred cities from limiting new natural gas connections in an effort to combat climate change (Georgia). Florida passed legislation expanding the already substantial state penalties against local governments that try to regulate guns. Montana even blocked local government from regulating flavored tobacco products.

A major new area of focus has been voting: As part of the general red state advance of legislation restricting access to the ballot, Georgia specifically outlawed the early voting buses used by Fulton County, home of Atlanta, severely reduced the number of drop boxes the county could provide and made it easier for the state to take over local voting boards. The restrictive voting bill that Texas Republicans are pushing in a special session that Abbott says he’ll call later this year (after a Democratic walkout blocked it in the final hours of the regular legislative session) directly targets several of the steps, such as 24-hour and drive-through voting, that Harris County used to significantly expand its turnout in 2020.

“They know that the urban areas are predictably blue, so they are targeting just those areas,” says Ellis.

Broadening divide between red and blue

Running through all of these conflicts is the widening geographic trench between the parties. Particularly since Trump’s election in 2016, Democrats have solidified their strength in virtually all of the nation’s major metropolitan areas: Joe Biden last fall won 91 of the nation’s 100 largest counties, more even than either Barack Obama in 2012 or Hillary Clinton in 2016. Local governments in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas are preponderantly Democratic. Even in Texas, Democrats control both the mayorships and county judge positions (the equivalent of the county executive) in Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio and their surrounding counties; only in Fort Worth do Republicans maintain any foothold.

Simultaneously, Republicans have consolidated their hold over small-town and rural America; beyond the largest 100, Trump in 2020 again won about 2,550 of the nation’s remaining 3,000 counties, according to the tally by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

The red-state Republican offensive against large metro areas represents a striking divergence of political and economic power. Even as Republicans are using their dominance of rural areas to extend their political leverage over big metro areas, those larger places are becoming more dominant in their states’ economies. In Texas, for instance, the four largest metro areas accounted for about three-fourths of the jobs the state has generated over the past decade, says Steven Pedigo, director of the LBJ Urban Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.

In virtually all of the states experiencing widespread preemption, metro areas are driving most of the statewide increase not only in jobs, but also in population. Yet it’s likely that their influence will be blunted well into the 2020s because the Republican control of redistricting in these states will allow them to “slice and dice” metro populations, as Pedigo puts it, into state legislative (and congressional) districts dominated by conservative rural areas.

That prospect suggests the offensive by Republican state governments against Democratic local governments is unlikely to slow unless Democrats can break through to win more governorships in states that now lean toward the GOP, particularly across the Sun Belt states where preemption has been most intense.

“I don’t think cities have found an effective way to fight back politically except by having the Democratic coalition do better at the state level,” Briffault says. “You have to elect governors who would veto some of these things.”