Texas’ War on Local Control is Part of National Trend

Nearly 150 progressive officials gathered in Austin last weekend to build the fight against GOP-controlled state legislatures.


Local progress, Capitol, protest
Attendees of the Local Progress convention gather outside the Capitol.  Gus Bova

Local officials in Texas’ big cities are awfully isolated these days. The Texas Legislature is attacking local control with the kind of zeal it usually reserves for criminals, and the governor has even refused to meet with some urban mayors. But the fight between red states and blue cities isn’t unique to the Lone Star State.

Last weekend, elected officials from around the country converged in Austin to share war stories and plot resistance against hostile state governments. The convening was hosted by Local Progress, a network of progressive city and county leaders, and consisted of panels, strategy sessions and a march around the Capitol.

“Nearly 150 elected officials gathered to say that city officials will no longer put up with our work being erased by regressive state legislatures,” said Austin City Council member Greg Casar outside the Capitol Friday.

At the conference, elected officials compared notes about how badly their states were steamrolling them. In one workshop, David Stout, an El Paso County Commissioner, said he felt the Lone Star State was at the forefront, but North Carolina and Florida representatives said they felt the same.

“Texas is getting up there, but state interference is increasingly a national phenomenon,” said Ben Beach, legal director for the Partnership for Working Families. “Governor Abbott has shown, I think, a willingness to pursue some of the more extreme versions. … But unfortunately, even if he succeeded, Texas would not be alone in adopting those more extreme measures.”

Ben Sargent

The agenda of the special session of the Texas Legislature, now underway, includes a raft of legislation that would pre-empt cities and counties from establishing their own policies. The measures target everything from property taxes to bathrooms to trees.

The state’s most infamous pre-emption measure is its “sanctuary cities” ban, set to go into effect September 1, but even that legislation isn’t as unusual as Texans might think.

Three other states — Georgia, Indiana and Mississippi — all passed “sanctuary” legislation this year, and at least 21 bills were filed in states around the country, according to Michael Bare, a policy analyst with Grassroots Change, a nonprofit that tracks pre-emption legislation. They were part of at least 140 total pre-emption bills filed this year, Bare said.

“These laws, which are corporate-backed state power grabs, are happening in places all over the country,” said Michael Alfano, campaign manager at the Campaign to Defend Local Solutions.

Pre-emption is a decades-old strategy, Alfano said, but state lawmakers have increasingly adopted it to push back against progressive local policies. Alfano and others at the conference said the approach has been manufactured by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a powerful organization that works with corporations to shop legislation to conservative state legislators.

“States became one-stop shops,” said Alfano. “They can come in at the state level and take power away from local officials.” And with the GOP increasingly in control of state legislatures, the path for pre-emption is clearer than ever.

In Missouri and Iowa this year, governors signed laws that would undo minimum wage increases passed by cities, catapulting workers back into poverty. Last year, Ohio managed to pre-empt wage hikes before Cleveland could pass one, and Arizona signed a law to deprive cities of essential funding if they’re found in conflict with any state laws.

“People don’t fully realize how much is at stake with pre-emption, and how much it affects their daily lives,” said Alfano, who noted the laws also affect environmental regulation, the predatory loan industry and broadband.

Yet even as states win many battles over local control, the gathering remained hopeful.

Megan Green, a St. Louis alderwoman, told the Observer that a “save the raise” campaign is underway to preserve her city’s $10 minimum wage. The campaign aims to pressure businesses into voluntarily keeping the wage, and to boycott those who don’t. And a county judge recently threw out Ohio’s minimum wage pre-emption on a technicality.

Austin City Council member Greg Casar speaks against SB 4 during the regular session.  Sam DeGrave

In Texas, the lawsuit against Senate Bill 4 continues to grow, with Cameron County voting to join last month and activists continuing to pressure Fort Worth officials. “We hope to see more of that, cities banding together to challenge state interference,” said Beach.

A federal judge is currently considering a motion to enjoin the law.

And even if SB 4 takes effect, Casar told the Observer city councils and police chiefs could still resist it during implementation.

“It’s going to be up to cities to implement this vague law in the end … to interpret the gray areas,” he said.