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Corporate Interests Take Aim at Local Democracy

Groups like ALEC have increasingly been turning to state “preemption” measures.

A demonstrator displays a flag decrying corporate spending in US political elections in front of the Waukesha Convention Center on July, 13, 2015, in Waukesha, Wisconsin. (Photo: Juli Hansen /

Across America, corporate interests are taking aim at local government.

With Congress gridlocked and a majority of state legislatures controlled by right-wing interests, cities have become laboratories of democracy for progressive policies like a higher minimum wage, LGBTQ protections, or parental leave.

In response, corporate interests and groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have increasingly been turning to state “preemption” measures – some of them unprecedentedly aggressive – to override an array of progressive policy gains at the city or county level.

“2015 saw more efforts to undermine local control on more issues than any year in history,” said Mark Pertschuk, director of the watchdog group Preemption Watch.

Last year, state legislatures in at least 29 states introduced bills to block local control over a range of issues, from the minimum wage, to LGBTQ rights, to immigration, according to Preemption Watch. Seventeen states considered more than one preemption bill.

And just a few weeks into 2016 state legislative sessions, it’s clear that ending local authority will continue to be the go-to strategy for state legislators and their special interest allies, as a means of blocking earned sick days, minimum wage hikes, tobacco and fracking bans, pro-worker policies, or anti-discrimination laws.

Bills to stop local fracking bans have been already filed this year in Colorado, New Mexico and and Florida. Minimum wage preemption bills have been filed in Washington and Illinois. Legislation has been filed in Indiana, Michigan and New Mexico to stop local action on fair scheduling ordinances. Advocates are tracking preemption bills targeting LGBTQ ordinances in South Carolina, Virginia, Oklahoma and Indiana, and expect to see bills in North Carolina, Mississippi and West Virginia. Unions are bracing for bills in a spate of states aimed at limiting municipal labor standard-setting.

In Florida alone, lawmakers have already filed more than 20 bills seeking to preempt local authority on issues including oil and gas regulations, construction standards for abortion clinics and whether a town can declare itself a sanctuary city.

And in Oklahoma, legislators just introduced a wide-ranging bill to effectively undo home rule and local control. Under the proposal, local governments would be prohibited from doing almost anything that isn’t specifically authorized by the state legislature.

Troubling Preemption Trends Emerged in 2015

Over time, bills interfering in local democracy have become wider in scope and more hostile to home rule. More industries and special interest groups now consider preemption a legislative imperative, using it not just to stop the advancement of policies they disagree with, but also to undo elections and repeal laws already on the books.

These efforts to consolidate power at the state level and stop local progress are part of a long-term corporate-driven strategy. The Koch-funded ALEC and its local offshoot, the American City County Exchange (ACCE), have been central to this anti-local democracy effort. ALEC has long pushed bills like the “Living Wage Mandate Preemption Act” to block local governments from raising the wage. It has worked to preempt community-run municipal broadband in 19 states – which benefits ALEC funders like AT&T and Comcast – and local anti-GMO policies, which benefits ALEC funders like CropLife America.

A new trend that emerged in 2015 was the introduction of wide-ranging bills prohibiting local control over a broad set of issues, such as Michigan’s “Death Star” preemption bill (HB 4052) which bars local governments from regulating everything from paid sick days and minimum wage to scheduling for retail stores and ban the box ordinances. Originally, the bill included language that could have eliminated local protections against LGBTQ discrimination. That section was not contained in the final law, but it did pass in Arkansas. North Carolina also considered a “Death Star” preemption bill last year, but too late in the session to move it.

2015 also saw narrowly-focused bills evolve into comprehensive attacks on local control. These so-called “Christmas Tree” bills start out as say, a ban on local plastic bag regulations, and are then hung with an array of other provisions crafted to override local lawmaking. For example, a law in Missouri enacted last year that blocked local government authority to enact paid sick days or raise the minimum wage started as a plastic bag ban.

Last year also saw the rise of “super-preemption” bills that not only block local governments from enacting regulations, but give corporations and individuals the right to sue cities or counties if they don’t comply.

Here is a snapshot of some corporate-backed efforts to override local control in 2015:

Paid Sick Days and Minimum Wage

Bills prohibiting local government from enacting paid sick day guarantees were enacted in Michigan, Oregon, and Missouri in 2015. Republican-controlled legislatures in Montana and Virginia also passed paid sick days preemption, but the state’s governors ultimately vetoed the measures. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s veto, however, was overridden by the Republican-controlled legislature.

The spread of these bills can be tied to ALEC and its funder the National Restaurant Association (NRA), which represents big chain restaurants. At ALEC’s August 2011 meeting in New Orleans, an NRA executive shared a paid sick day preemption bill that had recently been signed into law by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, as well as an NRA target list and map of state and local paid sick leave policies. In the years following that meeting, similar paid sick day preemption legislation was enacted in sixteen states, in most cases introduced by ALEC members, and with backing from the state NRA affiliates.

Last year – in addition to the five states that passed paid sick day preemption bills – legislation was also introduced in Alabama, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.

Regulation of Fracking

In recent years, dozens of cities in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania have banned hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, citing public health concerns about water contamination and earthquakes.

Yet after residents of Denton, Texas voted for an anti-fracking ballot initiative in November 2014, the oil and gas industry began to fight back. The industry quickly sued, and ALEC legislators in the state capitol responded with a deluge of bills to override local authority over public health – even though most Texans support local control over fracking.

ALEC has acknowledged its role in promoting fracking preemption, and at the December meeting, of ALEC’s local government-focused spinoff, ACCE, members were warned of the “epidemic” of “draconian” local restrictions against fracking, according to a report from the meeting. Jacki Pick of the Koch-backed National Center for Policy Analysis (and a talk show host on Glenn Beck’s “The Blaze” network) warned that “the oil and gas industry will be destroyed unless conservatives act.”

Both Texas and Oklahoma adopted laws preempting local governments from regulating the oil and gas industry in 2015. Bills were also introduced in Florida and New Mexico. In Wisconsin, where the fine silica sand used in fracking is mined, the Republican-controlled state legislature also considered bills to override local frac sand mining regulation.

LGBTQ Rights

The religious right has also begun using a preemption strategy to override local protections for LGBTQ rights.

“The push for LGBT nondiscrimination protections – laws that would cover both sexual orientation and gender identity in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations – have stalled at the statewide level,” said Andy Garcia, Program Manager at the Equality Federation. “As a result, efforts have shifted to the city and county level in the form of municipal nondiscrimination ordinances.”

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