Conventional wisdom holds that Republicans are the party of “local control,” arguing that towns and counties, not big-government bureaucrats in state legislatures or the federal government, should be able to decide what rules and laws work best for them. Small-c conservatives feared overreach from distant authorities, and argued that top-down rules, like state minimum wage laws, could threaten local economies and communities in ways that legislators in faraway capital cities could never anticipate.
That orthodoxy has never been entirely true, of course—for most of the last century, the GOP has been the party that advocates for regulating women’s bodies and peeking into couples’ bedrooms—but the shift has been especially pronounced in the Washington State Legislature in the past few years, as a newly emboldened clique of rural and exurban Republicans have proposed dozens of preemption bills aimed at stopping progressive laws in liberal cities like Seattle.
This past year, according to Seattle’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations, legislators proposed 16 bills that would preempt local authority. Most are aimed at local Seattle laws or proposals that frustrate the business community—such as SB 5149, sponsored by Sen. Joe Fain of Auburn, which would put the kibosh on Seattle City Council members’ efforts to require paid family leave, or SB 5620, from Sen. Curtis King of Yakima, which would bar Seattle from regulating transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft.
Others are aimed at stopping Seattle from passing socially liberal legislation, such as two bills by Sen. Mark Miloscia, from Federal Way, to prevent Seattle from opening supervised drug consumption sites (SB 5223) and authorizing homeless encampments (SB 5656). Still others take aim at local anti-discrimination laws, like the one in Seattle prohibiting landlords from refusing to rent to tenants using Section 8 vouchers or other nontraditional income sources.
“We’re a home rule state here in Washington, but if there are jurisdictions that have an idea and want to proceed with something that bothers [legislators], especially if it’s in the business arena—because there are businesses that work across jurisdictional lines—that can create tensions and conflicts,” says Seattle Democratic Sen. Reuven Carlyle, who recently wrote a blog post panning the preemption trend. But the larger fear, Carlyle says, isn’t just businesses will have to navigate a complicated web of overlapping rules—it’s that once progressive ideas take hold in one place, they tend to spread across the state.
“Once you start to see some of these policies get some momentum at the local level—and, worst of all, actually start to work—people in other towns and cities say, ‘Hey, maybe I’d like to make a higher minimum wage too,’ and it takes off,” Carlyle says. (So far, three cities—Seattle, SeaTac, and Tacoma—have passed local minimum wages that are higher than the statewide minimum, prompting legislators to propose a bill last year that would have preempted local minimum wage laws). “That’s the fear.”
The trend isn’t just taking place in Washington; as the New York Times reported in 2015, “So-called pre-emption laws, passed in states across the country, have barred cities from regulating landlords, building municipal broadband systems and raising the minimum wage.” Many of the bills are backed or drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a national group that provides model legislation to conservative state legislators. The Times noted that the states where such bills have actually passed—as opposed to bubbling up perennially but never quite making it through both houses, as they do in Washington—are Republican-controlled states like Texas and Arkansas.
With the state legislature split by the slimmest of margins (Republicans hold an effective 25-24 majority in the senate and Democrats control the house 50-48, it’s still hard for any of these local preemption bills to get through. But that could change, if Republicans manage to take control of both houses. “We’re one vote away from those types of bills passing,” Carlyle says. “If the Republicans took over, they would very quickly raise preemption to the top tier of legislative priorities.”
Then again, would the Democrats behave any differently if the tables were turned? Dave Williams, government relations director for the Association of Washington Cities, says both parties tend to favor preemption once they get in power. “Our experience is that the things we have to defend against are different depending on who’s in charge,” Williams says. For example, Williams says Carlyle himself “was problematic in the past about how we deal with some of the issues relating to marijuana revenues.” (Carlyle opposed past efforts to give cities a greater share of tax revenues from recreational marijuana sales).
“It goes back and forth—it’s not a one-party deal,” Williams says. “It just so happens that right now, especially on some business issues, the Republicans want to preempt” cities like Seattle. When Democrats had more power, “We tended to get mandates on environmental regulations without the money to support enforcing them.”
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