When States Interfere With City-Level Innovation: Preemption and Implications for Cities

By: Emily Warren, postdoctoral fellow, 21st Century Cities Initiative, Johns Hopkins Universitystate-political-control

This policy brief is the first in a series of briefs developed as a follow-up to the 21st Century Neighborhoods symposium organized by the 21st Century Cities Initiative on September 15, 2016. The briefs explore key themes raised during the conference that cities are currently grappling with in their efforts to improve conditions in all neighborhoods and for all residents.

At the 21st Century Cities symposium, held in Baltimore in September 2016, city leaders from across the country described innovative strategies they are using to address inequality in their communities. Employing revenues from a new beverage tax, the city of Philadelphia is expanding pre-kindergarten into low income communities and supporting other educational programs targeting underserved children. To address affordable housing challenges, the city of Seattle is requiring the inclusion of proportional affordable housing units in all new residential housing developments. Strategies such as those in Philadelphia and Seattle highlight the role of city leaders in addressing unique challenges of their residents by devising and implementing appropriate, locally driven policies and programs.

As city leaders discussed strategies for addressing local concerns at the symposium, many also described an increasing problem in which state legislatures and governors stifle city agendas and local innovation. This procedural process is known as preemption, a legal term that refers to the power granted to higher levels of government to enact laws that override laws passed by lower levels of government. Most typically, state legislatures use preemptive powers to override legislation passed by local governments. While the limits placed on states in their use of preemptive action varies nationally, all states govern under the general principle that local law must be consistent with any existing state or federal laws. Read the full brief here.