Four years ago, the residents of Denton, Texas, took extraordinary action. In a state known for its ties to oil and gas production, Denton voters overwhelmingly passed a resolution banning the process for extracting natural gas known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” within city limits.
Neighbors had been complaining about noise and toxic fumes from the nearby drilling sites for years. Finally, a group of concerned activists rose up and scored a major victory for public health.
Sadly, their victory was short-lived.
Five months later, after intense lobbying from the oil and gas industry, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill prohibiting all Texas towns from passing oil and gas regulations, thus nullifying the city referendum. Today, drilling within the city is fully operational and takes place near many of Denton’s public parks and hospitals.
What happened in Denton is one of many examples of state preemption, which occurs when a higher level of government supersedes the authority of lower levels. Over the last decade, state legislatures across the country have used preemption to restrict rights, degrade the environment and otherwise strip local communities of the power to control events.
Preemption is especially prevalent in states with Republican-led legislatures, which often employ model bill language from organized conservative groups including the American Legislative Exchange Council. Half of all states now ban local efforts to raise the minimum wage. States have also stopped cities from passing decrees to protect against anti-LGBTQ discrimination ordinances related to gun safety.
Despite the prevalence of preemption, about two-thirds of voters in affected states have heard “very little or nothing about it,” according to a January 2018 survey.
I was largely unaware of the practice myself until this past April, when I was elected to the city council of my hometown of Middleton, Wisconsin. I had run and been elected on the promise of delivering change. On assuming office, my eyes were opened to how much my hands would be tied when it came to actually delivering it.
Preemption has long been a favorite tool of Republicans in Wisconsin. Since 2011, municipalities in the dairy state have been prohibited from addressing local employment laws, plastic bag pollution, rent control and myriad other pressing policy issues.
Early into my city council tenure, I was contacted by a group of constituents who were concerned about the proposed expansion of a quarry mine adjacent to their neighborhood. If the plan were to materialize, several constituents’ homes would be within 300 feet of the excavation.
Several municipalities collaborated together to challenge the mine’s expansion. Unbeknownst to us, state legislators had attempted to thwart our efforts by inserting language to outlaw municipal regulation of quarries into their biannual budget.
Thankfully, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, vetoed this language and local democracy was maintained. Activists in many other states, like Texas, have not been so fortunate. And a raft of preemption bills passed under the state’s former Republican former governor, Scott Walker, remain on the books.
In an era with partisan disagreement over virtually everything, members of the public, Democrats and Republicans alike, share high levels of confidence in local government. City councils and local governments know the values of their populace and what is best for the people who reside there.
Whereas the 2010s saw the troubling rise of preemption, let this new decade be one where we trust voters to know what’s best for their own communities.
Luke Fuszard is a graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a member of the city council in Middleton, Wisconsin. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.