Restoring City Rights in the Era of Preemption: A Municipal Action Guide

December 3, 2019

National League of Cities (NLC)

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E very day, city leaders are working to improve the health and welfare of their communities and the people who live there. And as new challenges have found their way to cities’ doorsteps — economic restructuring or climate change or income inequality — mayors and council members have developed or adopted new tools and policies to help solve them. City leaders are eager problem solvers and innovators. They are also eager to partner with other levels of government to support and complement local efforts.

But instead of partnership and support, many cities in recent years have confronted state politics and interference. When state-local relationships break down, and when state governments unduly limit local authority, city leaders are left with fewer tools and reduced power to solve problems. This breakdown impacts voters too. Local democracy should be defined not only by the ability to elect representatives, but also by the opportunity to see preferred policies implemented. When state law interferes in that process without a strong justification, city residents are left wondering what their votes are worth.

State preemption laws, which remove local authority over policymaking, have proliferated and, in some instances, have started to erode the fundamental core of local democracy. This guide builds on work at the National League of Cities over the past two years that sought to expose the extent of preemption laws impacting cities across the country. With the right tools, local leaders can counter such state interference.

In addition to background on preemption, this playbook specifically provides local leaders with guidance on:
  • how to talk about preemption to constituents and to legislators
  • how to build coalitions with new partners that can advocate affirmatively for local power, and
  • how to use legal challenges if necessary.
It is NLC's hope that the proactive efforts of city leaders across the country will reverse the trend of preemption, preserve and expand the fundamental roles and rights of local governments, and enable stronger, more productive partnerships with state governments.

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