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Republican legislatures look to put local issues in liberal areas under state control

FILE - The Missouri State Capitol is seen on Sept. 16, 2022, in Jefferson City, Mo.
Jeff Roberson
FILE - The Missouri State Capitol is seen on Sept. 16, 2022, in Jefferson City, Mo.

Lawmakers in statehouses across the country have spent the past several weeks debating bills that would bring local issues like zoning, education and police powers under state control.

In recent years, national culture war debates have driven a surge of new legislation, known as preemption bills, in Republican state houses aimed at rolling back laws passed by more progressive cities. Mayors and advocates say the trend risks alienating voters who lose faith in the power of their local leaders.

"What we're seeing lately is an increase of home rule grab type legislation," said Clarence Anthony, the CEO of the National League of Cities. "This year, there are 600 different preemptive laws that are being proposed by different legislatures throughout America. That, in fact, is a rise and it's very concerning to our municipal leaders."

Bills targeting education, transgender and LGBTQ rights, housing policy, gun rights and policing are among the most prevalent in the legislative sessions this year, according to the NLC.

Preemption playing out in Missouri

FILE - Members of the Missouri House debate legislation on March 21, 2023, at the state Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo.
David A. Lieb / AP
FILE - Members of the Missouri House debate legislation on March 21, 2023, at the state Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo.

The national fight over crime, policing and public safety boiled over in Missouri this week as Republican state lawmakers pushed to transfer control of the St. Louis Police Department to a state-appointed board of trustees. The move was part of a broader crime reduction bill that included a plan to appoint a special prosecutor to oversee some criminal cases in the city.

The legislation was removed Thursday after the city's embattled prosecutor, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, resigned as part of a broader agreement, according to reporting from St. Louis Public Radio.

"I can neither enable nor allow the outright disenfranchisement of the people of the City of St. Louis," Gardner said in a statement announcing her resignation. "Nor can I allow these outsiders to effectively shut down our important work."

Still, the fight over policing in the city has angered residents and local officials who fear a series of ongoing attempts by the state to undercut laws in the city.

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said the attempt to overtake the police department would have overturned a statewide referendum that passed in 2012 granting St. Louis local control of their public safety.

"The Republican controlled state legislature is trying to take over our police department by putting in a five member board that are appointed by them and confirmed by them to make all of the decisions on public safety in the city of St. Louis," Jones said in an interview with NPR before the bill was scuttled.

Republican lawmakers, like State Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, said the bill was necessary to curb high crime rates in the city.

"Recently we've seen major St. Louis businesses leave or threaten to leave the region because of crime," Luetkemeyer said this week in a speech on the senate floor.

But Jones said these bills to preempt local control are pure politics.

"None of the legislators who are pushing for this live in the city proper," she said. "This isn't about public safety. It's about power and control of our democratically led cities by outstate Republicans."

Legislatures latest battleground in culture war

Bills like these are not new. Governors and state legislatures from both parties often work together to pass uniform laws for the entire state. Advocates for the approach say it's a way to avoid a patchwork of rules by setting state-wide standards, like for ride share companies or the minimum wage.

But there has been a rapid increase in preemption laws centered around national hot button cultural issues. Mark Treskon, a senior researcher at the Washington DC-based Urban Institute, said the political battles between GOP-led states and more liberal cities have grown.

"Increasingly what's happened is states have been active actors in looking for local laws that might not fit into the ideological underpinnings of who is at the state level," Treskon said. "So I think there's been a little bit more of an act of searching for laws that can be preempted."

At the same time, liberal advocates are working with city leaders to try to advance progressive policies on issues like abortion, gun control, housing policy and the minimum wage.

Last month Mississippi's Republican governor Tate Reeves signed a law giving state-appointed leaders control of policing in Jackson, the state's largest city. In Florida, lawmakers are taking aim atschool districts, rent control and gun rights and energy laws. Other similar fights are ongoing from Oklahoma and Texasto Idahoand Alabama.

Republicans are not alone in trying to impose their political aims through preemption. Most analysts point to state-mandated minimum wage increases as an area where Democrats have traditionally tried to set state-wide rules that may conflict with local leaders.

A public health crisis presents an opportunity

Mike Ricci, a former adviser to Larry Hogan, the former Governor of Maryland, said the pattern of preempting local laws took on a new form during the initial COVID-19 outbreak. Governors were using their power to manage the health emergency and saw an opportunity.

"You know, a light bulb goes off," Ricci said in an interview. "If we can do this with local health powers, can we do it in other areas? Whether it's law enforcement or housing or energy policy? So it just takes on a life of its own."

Ricci said the push for preemption is also about messaging in an era where voter bases for both parties are demanding action, results and conflict from their party leaders. In some cases, Republicans who might have once advocated for small government and local control are now meddling directly in those issues.

"It would have been unthinkable to see governors getting so involved and in law and order and day to day public safety issues in cities," Ricci said. "But now we see it all the time, and I think that will continue. I truly believe that preemption and these tools will be the new normal."

Clarence Anthony of the National League of Cities says many of these bills will ultimately fail - like the one in Missouri. Many more will change. But the uptick in state governments trying to restrict the rights and actions of cities is significant.

"One size does not fit all," he said. "Our local leaders were elected to lead their community and to make those decisions."

And mayors like Tishaura Jones in St. Louis say there are serious consequences to undermining local leaders.

"It makes voters angry," Jones said. "Especially when they elect their leaders on the local level. Then they see that their leaders constantly have to fight for the rights of our cities."

It is particularly stark when those voters have nobody to represent them state-wide. Advocates worry that voters who lose faith in the power of their local leaders may stop participating in elections all together.

Jason Rosenbaum of St. Louis Public Radio contributed to this report.

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Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.