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Thwarting Cities in the Trump Era

State government gives the GOP a platform to keep acting as the opposition party—against “liberal cities.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he supports a broad law defining the state's ability to preempt local regulations. (Chip Somodevilla/AP)

Last week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott threw his support behind preemption—the idea that state authority precludes local authority on most any matter.

“As opposed to the state having to take multiple rifle-shot approaches at overriding local regulations, I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says across the board, the state is going to preempt local regulations, is a superior approach,” he said during a Q&A with the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute.

That comes as no surprise; Abbott is a governor, and his state is Texas. After the last legislative session, he signed legislation forbidding cities from passing local regulations on oil drilling, a response to an anti-fracking bill passed (and later repealed) by Denton in November 2014.

Abbott’s latest comments come as the new biennial Texas legislative session takes up the question with renewed urgency as lawmakers look to pass their own version of the “bathroom bill”—the one that North Carolina is looking to scrap. Other Texas legislators set forth to cap local property taxes and ban bans on plastic bags. Abbott, meanwhile, has pledged to force cities “to pay a price so stiff they will not be able to adopt sanctuary city policies.”

Abbott’s quote is more remarkable than it might look at first blush. By promising to block local regulations, no matter their merit, he’s is outlining a policy of obstruction—a capital-P preemption to thwart liberal cities from passing legislation. It’s the latest in a series of escalating gestures by red-state governors and lawmakers to curtail the rights of their more-liberal cities.

In the wake of his failed bid to bring President Donald Trump’s Affordable Health Care Act to fruition, House Speaker Paul Ryan has blamed the GOP’s “growing pains” in transitioning from an opposition party to a governing party. While that’s a fresh worry for Ryan and the unruly Freedom Caucus, it’s not a problem for many rank-and-file Republicans outside the capital. Republican-dominated state governments offer conservatives a perfect platform to play the opposition, with liberal cities as their foil.

Who gets to decide what cities do?

Friction between states and cities isn’t isolated to Texas in 2017. The red state–versus–blue cities dynamic is playing out in statehouses across the country. At least 36 states have introduced laws preempting cities since 2016, on topics ranging from who pees where to “constitutional carry” for guns. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum won a rare battle against the gun lobby over preemption in a federal appellate court in February; Gillum is now taking up #DefendLocal as his rallying cry for a run at the governor’s mansion.

Texas may be unique, however, in the deepness of its red and richness of its blue—and for the puzzlingly purplish color the preemption debate takes in a state that prizes autonomy as a signature character.

Trump’s election has pushed immigration to the fore, of course, and pushed liberal cities into the firing line, especially in a border state like Texas. After Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, whose purview comprises Austin and environs, implemented a sanctuary policy for the county, Abbott made good on his threat by slashing $1.5 million in state funds. The Texas House just approved a penalty on “sanctuary businesses,” targeting companies that employ undocumented immigrants. As a state, Texas is against open trade and for closed borders—even though major Texas industries, such as the cattle trade, depend mightily on Mexico to thrive.

Or consider the cap on property tax increases, which the Texas Senate approved last week. The bill would impose an automatic referendum on any proposal to increase city or county property taxes above 5 percent. That would seem to give greater control to local residents over their own taxes. In effect, though, it would install rule by ballot measure, a hobgoblin form of direct democracy that has bedeviled San Francisco and Los Angeles (and Houston, too).

Urban Texans don’t need any help demonizing taxes. Houston operates under a revenue cap that has forced the city to cut property taxes several times in order to stay under the ceiling. Various municipal leaders opposed the new property tax cap passed by the Texas Senate; residents of their cities, however, may not ever rally enough pro-tax votes, if and when the need for new revenue arises. (And it will—but more on that in a moment.)

Ultimately, urban residents are bound to side with the state from time to time. Back when Uber and Lyft squared off with Austin over a local regulation, the ride-sharing services threatened to sponsor a legislative effort to preempt the authority of cities entirely. Forty percent of the city voted with Uber and Lyft (and against their own legislative authority). In the end, Austinites won: After Uber and Lyft skipped town, alternatives sprang up like bluebonnets to satisfy the need, including Texas’s own Get Me and homegrown Ride Austin.

The Texas Senate is now mulling three different bills to preempt cities from regulating ride-sharing locally. Preemption not only strips authority from liberal cities, it stifles innovation. While city dwellers might stand with the state on certain issues, the state has promised not to give them a chance. That’s obstruction.

Why cities are outlets for GOP obstructionism

There is a larger argument over cities and how they serve as engines of progressive power in the Trump era. Two writers recently hashed out a version of it in a pair of much-talked-about editorials for the Washington Post and New York Times.

Will Wilkinson, vice-president for policy at the libertarian Niskanen Center (and a friend of this writer), makes a case for the Post about why Trump is so hostile to cities. Trump antagonizes them as “radioactive war zones,” Wilkinson writes, because cities—with their immigrant residents, religious plurality, trans-inclusiveness, and racial diversity—counter his thesis that America is not great. For Trump and his supporters to be right that those things are bad means that the places where they are practiced must be suffering. Wilkinson details two of the theories shaping our society economically and socially—the “Big Sort” and the “Great Divergence”—and how they factored into the 2016 election. He concludes that if the rise of the multicultural city as economic powerhouse is now thrusting a “downside burden” on rural, aging America, then the answer is the robust social safety net favored by the city, not the economic populism supported out in the county.

Ross Douthat, columnist for the Times, writes that Wilkinson gets the city all wrong. Yes, cities are great, if you’re young and wealthy, but they’re also segregated, tough for middle-class families, “rigidly zoned,” and a force that has “actually weakened liberalism politically by concentrating its votes.”

It’s hard to grant Douthat that last point, that urban liberals are somehow responsible for their own gerrymandering, as my colleague Brentin Mock can explain at length. But he’s is right on the many failings of the city, from affordability to racial segregation. His prescription for solving those problems is to break it up—“the way liberals treat corporate monopolies.”

Specifically, Douthat suggests taxing the engines driving megalopolic growth in order to drive development off the coasts. But his four target institutions—universities, nonprofits, the media, and the federal government—happen to also be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of the conservative catechism. Douthat does not float the notion of taxing Wall Street to Waukesha or shifting Silicon Valley to the Silicon Prairie. As my colleague Adam Sneed explores in greater depth, cities don’t work the way that corporate monopolies do—“breaking them up” is the wrong way to think about reform. It’s at best an incomplete prescription for solving the problems ostensibly at the root of urban dysfunction.

State-level Republicans are nevertheless coming for liberal cities. Not to spread their wealth, but to prevent them from doing the business that, as Wilkinson shows, makes America great. Obstructing cities gives state-level Republicans the same advantage that Trump exploited during the 2016 campaign. But as Congress has recently discovered, with unitary control of government comes some responsibility to govern, eventually. Should Trump deliver on his promise of economic nationalism, his supporters would be among those most likely to suffer.

By the same token, cutting off job opportunities and driving business out of states will hurt cities—just ask North Carolina. Urban and rural communities aren’t locked in a zero-sum game; when states keep cities from thriving, they’re only hurting themselves. Obstruction is still a strong play for votes for Republicans, but it’s increasingly a bad look for business—and a disaster for governance.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.