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The Republican War on Local Control

With increasing frequency, Republican state legislatures are passing preemption laws, which prevent cities, towns, villages, and counties from adopting policies that diverge from those of the state.

Many cities are left-leaning blue islands in red-leaning states.  (Photo: The Progressive)

Many cities are left-leaning blue islands in red-leaning states.  (Photo: The Progressive) 

At a time when Democrats control both the legislature and governor’s office in just six states (compared with twenty-six states for Republicans) and stretches of America’s reliably purple hinterland have swung solid Republican, many cities remain left-leaning blue islands. And they’ve passed ordinances to prove it.

Cities, acting on their own authority, has enacted higher local minimum wages and passed stringent gun regulations, they’ve banned fracking and opted against cooperating with deportation authorities. Conservative state governments have sought to take that authority away, by eroding local control––a principle small government conservatives have long cherished.

With increasing frequency, Republican state legislatures are passing preemption laws, which prevent cities, towns, villages, and counties from adopting policies that diverge from those of the state.

Although passed as blanket statewide policy, preemption is often used to push a specific municipality into abandoning a progressive ordinance. In 2016, Alabama passed a law preventing all municipalities from raising minimum wages, forcing the city of Birmingham, a Democratic stronghold, to roll back an approved increase. The Missouri legislature forced St. Louis to surrender a similar raise last August.

Conservative state governments have sought to erode local control––a principle small government conservatives have long cherished.One recent example of this tactic is a bill winding through the Wisconsin state legislature. On Wednesday, the Wisconsin State Assembly Committee on Local Government held a public hearing on a proposal to force municipalities to stop regulating workplace discrimination.

 Although the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that the bill is merely an attempt to simplify a “confusing patchwork of local employment regulations,” critics see a more insidious motivation. The bill would prevent the city of Madison, a liberal enclave and home to The Progressive, from enforcing its workplace discrimination ordinance, which is much tougher than state policy.

Madison’s Equal Opportunities Ordinance, passed in 1963, seeks to protect victims of employment discrimination, and includes compensation for victims. If the legislation passes, workplace discrimination complaints would be handled by the Wisconsin Department of Workplace Development, which does not provide compensation.

“If you’re a woman and you’ve been sexually harassed and you go to the DWD, the best you can get is a letter telling the employer not to do that,” Steven Porter, a Madison attorney who specializes in civil rights cases, told the committee. “It [the DWD] has no teeth.”

The state of Wisconsin also lists fewer protected classes than Madison does under its ordinance. Gender identity, homelessness, student status, physical appearance, and political beliefs are among the twelve protected classes that would no longer be protected in Madison if the legislation passes.


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Linda Ketcham, director of Madison Area Urban Ministry, works with local churches to find homes and employment for impoverished Madison families. She warned the committee that the bill would make her job more difficult.

“There’s a vicious cycle that this legislation will set up when an employer can say ‘You don’t have a house so I don’t want to hire you’,” Ketcham said. “There’s no real reason for this legislation except to make it easier for companies to discriminate against potential employers.”

There’s also a broader concern that the increasingly common use of preemption laws is whittling away at the role of local government. At least regarding workplace discrimination, said Norman Davis, Madison’s civil rights director, state legislatures should concede authority to diverse cities like Madison “who are best suited to know, see, and address these issues.”

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a lobby association, dispatched its head of human resources, Chris Reader, to defend the proposed legislation. He told the committee that it will free Madison business from “burdensome regulations.”

The bill now awaits committee action. It would require approval from both houses of the GOP-controlled state Legislature and a signature by Republican Governor Scott Walker to become law. No vote has yet been scheduled.

‘People want decisions made at a local level.'

“The Republican authors certainly didn’t expect the outpouring of opposition to this bill,” Representative Lisa Subeck, a Democrat, told The Progressive. “There were real people there [at the committee hearing]. People that would lose their rights under this bill. People want decisions made at a local level.”

Still, she says, despite this showing of opposition, “I wouldn’t be surprised if it makes it to the floor for a vote.”

Lucas Sczygelski

Lucas Sczygelski is an editorial intern at The Progressive.

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