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A New Battle: Red States vs. Blue Cities

Many red states aren't completely red. Most have deep blue cities. And blue states often have deep-red rural counties. As a result, intrastate battles are heating up, and in all states, the states have the advantage over the local governments. This asymmetry is due to the Constitution. It grants certain powers to the federal government, but reserves the powers not enumerated to the states. It doesn't grant cities any powers at all. Any powers cities have, such as the ability to pass ordinances and the power to tax property, come from the states. The state legislatures are free to repeal any laws granting cities these powers anytime they want to and are increasingly doing so.

For example, housing prices are rising in Florida, so voters in Orange County (Orlando) passed a voter initiative last year to establish rent stabilization to keep landlords from increasing rents too fast. Republicans in the state legislature didn't like that so the state Senate just passed a bill to block the initiative. The GOP bill will probably become law soon. Other states are passing laws revoking cities' authority over school curriculums, minimum wages, and many other things where Democratic voters in cities and Republican state legislatures don't agree.

This is part of a trend from minimalist preemption to maximalist preemption. In the former case, cities were largely free to go their own way as long as they didn't violate any state laws. In the latter case, cities are not allowed to do anything at all unless the state legislature has granted explicit authority for them to do it by passing an enabling law. This shift is mostly clear in red states that want to hamstring blue cities. The reverse is rarely true. State legislatures in red states see big cities as potential powerful adversaries. This is especially true in the South. State legislatures in blue states rarely see thinly populated red counties as a serious threat.

For example, in the past few years, over 25 states have prohibited local governments from raising the minimum wage above the state minimum wage. Eighteen states forbid local governments from banning plastic bags. Twenty states have laws banning local ordinances prohibiting gas stoves. Forty-two states have laws preventing local governments from passing gun-related ordinances. Other issues states want to control are rent stabilization, affordable housing, zoning, taxes, LGBTQ+ rights, drag shows, abortion, and more. There is not much cities can do about that other than try to take over state legislatures, but that is difficult due to gerrymandering, which is up to the state legislatures.

A key principle here is subsidiarity. This says that control should be at the lowest level where it can do the job. It is a key organizing principle of the European Union. It is also referenced in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which reads:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

What does that mean, actually? It certainly says that the federal government has only the enumerated powers and no more. The founding parents would be shocked to see how big the federal government is today, but a lot of its powers come from the interstate commerce clause. But what does "or to the people"? mean. Does it suggest that some powers belong to authorities lower than the states, presumably meaning the counties, cities, school boards, water districts, etc.? The Supreme Court has never really clarified this. (V)

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