State Laws Limiting Local Democracy Increase Across the U.S.

Every community in a state is different – their populations, demographic make-ups and economies are all different. Even their histories and cultures are different. All of those differences mean that the policies that may work best for one community may not make sense for another.

States have historically set minimum health, safety, workplace and social standards. And in the past, cities and municipalities have been able to localize, and when necessary, build on and strengthen state laws to best meet the needs of their communities. To help improve health equity in our communities, the American Heart Association advocates for local governments to maintain their ability to pass laws about issues that are important to their communities. 


City councils and local governments know the values of their community and what is best for the people who live there. These leaders are people we see every day at the grocery store, at school events, walking their dogs in our community – and they can best respond to the changing needs of the local area.

But corporate lobbyists are increasingly pressuring state lawmakers across the country to prioritize profits and special interest agendas over all else. They do this by pushing preemption bills – essentially, measures that take regulatory power away from local communities – in an effort to protect their profits and avoid local oversight.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing a steady rise in these types of special interest-driven preemption measures being used in our state. Here in Alabama, we saw approximately 45 preemption bills introduced during our 2019 legislative session; in fact, many of those bills expected to return next year.

We also experienced this kind of state overreach back in 2016 when the City of Birmingham passed a local ordinance in 2016 to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. Days before it was to take effect in Birmingham, the Alabama Legislature fast-tracked and passed a preemptive minimum wage law. The new law was retroactive and made the Birmingham ordinance null. The law is being challenged in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals with a decision expected later this year. 

And we're not alone. 

Since 2011, the quantity and scope of preemption laws have increased. Earlier this month, Local Solutions Support Center and the State Innovation Exchange released a new report that details the growing use of preemption to curb local power and local decision making. The report, The Growing Shadow State Interference: Preemption in the 2019 State Legislative Sessions, looks at how special interest groups are increasingly successful in pushing state lawmakers to preempt local democracies on a whole host of issues – many of which directly relate to the work we do every day. For example, 13 states ban local food and nutrition policies and 11 states ban local action on e-cigarettes.

Heart-healthy policies often begin in communities. But when states block local governments from passing laws, it can hurt communities most where the need is greatest. That's why we will continue to monitor preemption efforts and keep you updated along the way. With your support, we can ensure that local governments have the opportunity to pass public policy that will improve the heart and brain health of their community members.

Julie Howell, Grassroots Manager, and Shelly Jones Hogan, Field Media Advocacy Director, contributed to the article.


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