AuthorNorris, Will

Local sovereignty is integral to Texas's frontier, "Remember the Alamo" self-image. But Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a spirited critic of federal overreach, has gone to war against the self-governance of Texas localities. This is not "the United States of Municipalities," Abbott proclaimed in 2017. Over his two-plus terms, he and his GOP-controlled legislature have overridden the ability of local governments in Texas to, among other things, mandate paid sick leave, require COVID-19 vaccines for workers, expand voting options, and regulate oil and gas drilling within their own borders.

Other Republican governors have been doing the same. Georgia's Brian Kemp signed legislation in 2021 criminalizing the provision of food and water to voters waiting in line at local polling places. Florida's Ron DeSantis has not only dictated what books local school libraries can and cannot stock but also signed a 2021 law making it illegal for municipalities to mandate electric charging stations at local gas stations.

The penchant of state-level Republicans for squashing municipal policies they don't like has been made easier by the way the federal government has traditionally funded programs to help localities: by routing the money through the states. When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston in 2017, city lawmakers expected the state to pass along the more than $1 billion Congress had appropriated for emergency aid. Instead, they received nothing: The entire package was doled out to largely white, inland communities less affected by the storm. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner accused Abbott of a "money grab." The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development later found that the stunt put Texas in violation of the Civil Rights Act. "Let me just tell you, that remains a sore spot," Turner recently told me. His ire was further piqued when the Texas Department of Transportation announced in February 2021 that it would expand a highway that cuts through the city without changes requested by the mayor and other Houston lawmakers. The planned expansion would displace nearly 1,100 homes, 340 businesses, five churches, and two schools.

In the 21st century, the arrival of an educated, multiracial workforce in places like Houston has collided with the disproportionate power Republicans have accrued at the state level to create a novel political phenomenon: Increasingly blue metro areas are finding themselves up against increasingly red state governments--and losing. If demographics are destiny, governors facing an in-migration pattern that worryingly resembles the long-term marginalization of their conservative politics are exploiting the legal and fiscal preeminence states have over localities in new and extreme ways. "Don't California My Texas" has become Abbott's trademarked mantra. In February, Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene captured the mood when she suggested that red states should block new arrivals from blue states from voting for a period of five years. Governors like Abbott and DeSantis, with the backing of a conservative Supreme Court supermajority determined to buttress the power of states, are steamrolling the will of cities to govern in ways their voters think best.

But that dynamic is not going unchallenged at the national level. One of the least noticed but most profound changes in Washington over the past two years has been a concerted effort by Joe Biden's administration and Democrats in Congress to liberate localities from the overweening power of state governments--a change the Washington Monthly called for in January 2021. (See "How Biden Can Use Federal Power to Liberate Localities," by Daniel Block.)

This has happened in innumerable ways, large and small. For instance, in March 2021, Biden's Department of Transportation told Texas to halt the Houston highway project until a federal investigation of civil rights and environmental justice concerns could be completed. (The project resumed after two years and will now reflect many of the changes Turner requested.) More significantly, the administration has worked to restructure spending bills in ways that shift the balance of power from state to local governments. For example, the COVID relief package Donald Trump signed in 2020, the CARES Act, sent almost four times as many federal dollars to state governments ($110 billion) as to cities ($29 billion), and none to municipalities with fewer than 500,000 residents.

Those smaller communities had to apply to their state governments for the funds, and nearly 30 percent got nothing...

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