May 21, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The next big fights between cities and states

Illustration of Karate hands vs hands with a gavel

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Legal battles between cities and states are expected to intensify in the coming months with dust-ups over municipal broadband networks, paid sick leave and affordable housing policies at the forefront.

Why it matters: After some high-profile disputes with governors over pandemic-related restrictions, some mayors are emboldened in pushing back on state laws prohibiting city-level policies that, they say, will be important to recovering from the coronavirus pandemic.

Between the lines: The city vs. state squabbles that are going to get the most attention as local economies start to reopen are those that are seen as critical to helping residents weather the pandemic and addressing the inequalities that have been deepened by COVID-19.

  • "When states handcuff cities, they don't have the flexibility, autonomy or policies in place to deal with emergencies," said Kim Haddow, director of the Local Solutions Support Center. "These are three areas that, if they'd been in place before the pandemic, cities would have been in a better position to respond to the crisis."

1. Community-run broadband networks: 19 states have legal barriers or bans on municipal-owned broadband networks, even in places where broadband is not available or there are limited options and speeds.

  • This impacts millions of schoolchildren who may still be grappling with remote learning in the fall, and at-home workers who are more reliant on an internet connection.
"You have the dual effect of communities that are completely disconnected in a world that is more interconnected than ever before, combined with the realization that telecommuting is effective. Cities wanting to be competitive are looking at ways to move that forward."
— Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Steve Benjamin

Where it stands: More than 500 communities have some sort of municipal broadband networks, per the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

  • In some rural areas where it's particularly challenging to get private telecom companies to deploy broadband, phone and electricity cooperatives are laying fiber. Some states— like Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina — have eased restrictions on cooperatives to facilitate broadband.

2. Paid sick leave: About 40% of service sector workers don't have paid sick leave, including many of the essential workers who are still on the job during the pandemic.

  • That has left tens of millions of workers with a very difficult decision if they get sick: Go to work and risk infecting others, or stay at home and lose their paycheck. Only 13 states and Washington, D.C. require paid sick leave, while 20 states have passed laws preempting cities from requiring employers to provide paid sick leave.
  • A new CityHealth poll shows 78% of Americans support paid sick leave for U.S. workers.
"Never has it been more important that people have the ability not to go into a workplace, and the public really gets that now."
— Shelley Hearne, president of CityHealth and a pandemic expert

Where it stands: Despite the pandemic, a federal judge in March blocked Dallas from enforcing a local ordinance requiring private employers to offer paid sick leave, per the Dallas Morning News. Similar ordinances have been blocked in San Antonio and Austin, with Austin appealing to the Texas Supreme Court.

  • Per the Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed by Congress in March, certain employers must provide paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for reasons related to COVID-19. Those provisions expire at the end of the year.

3. Affordable housing: About 11 million people pay more than half their income on rent. A number of cities and states have implemented eviction moratoriums to give relief to renters suddenly out of work, but some are already expiring.

  • Rent strikes and #CancelRent rallies are trying to focus policymakers' attention on the severe lack of affordable housing that could lead to spikes in homelessness as the pandemic drags on.

Where it stands: Despite a dramatic expansion of tenants' rights laws over the past few years with rent control laws in New York, Oregon and California, 31 states have statewide laws pre-empting rent control, said Haddow.

  • In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker is under pressure to use his emergency powers to repeal the state's ban on rent regulation, but Pritzker has deferred to the state legislature, per the Chicago Tribune.
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