Preemption Laws and the War on Arizona Cities

Guns. The Border Wall. Sanctuary cities. Solid waste collection. Industrial hemp production. AirBnBs.

What does this seemingly random grab bag of issues have in common? Well so far into this young legislative session, they have all been at the center of the Republican-controlled state legislature’s ongoing war on Democratic-led cities such as Phoenix, Tucson, Tempe, and Flagstaff. And the Republican legislators’ weapon of choice is an obscure tool known as preemption law. 

As explained by Henry Graber in Slate in 2016, preemption laws, like so much state-level Republican legislation, is a brainchild of the notorious American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the corporate-backed think tank which provides Republican legislators with model legislation which serves the interests of its corporate and billionaire clients. And preemption laws are a particularly pernicious tool that can be applied to almost any conservative hobbyhorse and harm the ability of cities to make their own laws.

It works like this. The state legislature in Arizona, like the majority of state legislature around the country, is controlled by Republicans. But many of Arizona’s largest and most important cities, including Phoenix, Tucson, Tempe, and Flagstaff, are Democratic strongholds with liberal mayors and city councils. This dynamic is similar around the country, where diverse cities are heavily Democratic while the more homogeneous suburbs and rural areas lean more Republican.

This leads to a disconnect between the city and state levels on a variety of issues. To take one example, Phoenix, Tempe, and Tucson all score perfect 100s on the Human Rights Campaign Municipal Equality Index thanks to their city-level antidiscrimination policies for LGBTQ+ individuals, while Arizona, which lacks statewide protections for LGBTQ+ people, scores much lower.

Preemption laws, simply put, are designed to take away the power of liberal-leaning cities to pass laws that Republicans don’t like. Remember Tempe’s ban on plastic bags? That was undone by a state-level preemption law that banned cities and towns from passing such bans. The same goes for a 2018 Tempe ordinance banning undisclosed political spending in elections which passed with over 90% support. The same goes for city ordinances requiring paid sick leave and for buildings to measure energy use. And another requires a city to post a bond “equal to the state shared revenue” if the state attorney general files a suit alleging that a city’s law violates the state’s gun preemption law. In other words, if the state AG even thinks a city’s gun regulation violates the state preemption law, the state would surrender all of its revenue from the state while the case is litigated.

These preemption laws, of course, make a mockery of conservatives’ common claim that they believe in local control of the government. In reality, conservatives believe in whatever form of government keeps them in power and disenfranchises progressives.

And this session seems to be no different. Rep. John Fillmore, apparently not thinking Arizona’s current gun regulation preemption law is not strong enough, has introduced HB2003, which would expand it. While Rep. Warren Petersen, doing the bidding of the man in the White House, has introduced HB2084, which would prevent cities from blocking construction of the notorious Border Wall. And Rep. Jay Lawrence has introduced HB2095, which prevents cities from declaring themselves sanctuary cities after Tucson considered the idea last fall.

But there seem to be signs that even some Republicans are thinking these bills go too far. The first bill introduced in the House for this session, HB2001, introduced by Democrat Isela Blanc, would repeal a preemption law that bars cities and towns from regulating short-term rentals on sites like Airbnb. Frustration from neighbors of Airbnb “party houses” has caused the bill to already receive bipartisan support, with Republican Noel Campbell signing on as a cosponsor. 

Governor Ducey and most Republicans in the legislature still oppose the repeal, but it will be up to them to explain why they think the state is better equipped to set policy on short-term rentals than the citizens of the communities that are actually affected by them.


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