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Georgia’s crackdown on DAs is part of a wave of preemption bills

Image via Unsplash.

By Tom Baxter

Last week, while the Georgia House was passing legislation that would create disciplinary boards for local prosecutors, the State Senate in Florida approved a bill that bars local governments from enacting rent controls.

Shortly after its passage in the Tennessee Senate, Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill that cuts in half the size of the Nashville Metro Council, from 40 to 20.

These are the latest examples of a growing trend of Republican governors and state legislatures using preemption bills to override the authority of mostly Democratic local governments on a range of issues, from elections to abortion to housing laws.

Analysts trace the rise in preemption legislation back to the election of Barack Obama and the subsequent rise in Republican strength in state governments across the country. The 2020 election and the overturning of Roe v. Wade are among the factors which have added fuel to the trend in recent years.

The Local Solutions Support Center, which opposes preemption, reports that it’s tracking some 400 preemption bills in legislatures this year. These cover a number of hot-button social issues, but they also involve tinkering with the mechanics of local government, as in the case of the Nashville Metro Council.

The sharp increase in efforts by legislators to exert their authority over local officials underscores an important point. Despite all the Washington chatter, the most sensitive conflicts aren’t between the red states and blue states, but the conflicts within each state between rural and urban areas. The same lines of conflict exist in blue states like Illinois and New York, but mostly we’re talking about red states with large blue cities, like Georgia.

Advocates of Senate Bill 92, which establishes the oversight commission for district attorneys, pointed to statements by district attorneys that they didn’t intend to prosecute minor marijuana offenses or abortions as the reason their bill was necessary. Democrats raised fears it was aimed at Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ investigation into whether former President Donald Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia, and Willis herself charged supporters of the bill with racist motives.

In Texas, local resistance to the state’s new abortion law has legislation in this year’s session that would impose fines and possible removal of office on local prosecutors who refused to enforce the abortion law or a law limiting medical services for trans people.

Florida, like Georgia, has a shortage of affordable housing. The ban on local rent controls was wrapped into a much larger bill that gives tax breaks to developers and sets aside $711 million for affordable housing programs. It got little opposition from either party.

But the Florida ban illustrates a potential political flaw in this wave of preemption legislation. While muscle-flexing may be popular with their base, it can put Republican legislators on the wrong side of issues that don’t always break down on party lines. An Orange County, Fla., local initiative that would have imposed a one-year cap on rent increases got 60 percent of the vote in last year’s election, garnering more votes in the county than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. In a statewide poll, 80 percent expressed more general support for rent controls.

By far the largest number of preemption bills being considered this year involve bans on critical race theory in schools, and on books in school libraries. Here again, these measures tend to be popular with the conservative base but much less so with the general public.

In the future, we can expect to see more legislation prohibiting local governments from restricting the use of gas stoves, that being a heavily promoted issue in conservative circles. There’s also a bill in Texas that would bar local governments from regulating greenhouse gas emissions in any way, and a bill in South Carolina that would ban local governments from using any environmental, social and governance standards to evaluate contractors.You have to ask: What other standards are there?.

Bills like these, if they pass, are going to create conflicts with federal environmental regulations. More important politically, legislation like this looks a lot like the oppressive, big-government approach that conservatives claim to abhor.


Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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