(The Hill) – Across the South, GOP-run state legislatures are moving to restrict the autonomy of Democratic cities.
The legislatures are seeking to limit cities’ power to set their own policies on everything from charged national issues like gun regulations to less-discussed ones like labor standards on hot days, and who decides who sits on local courts.
This nationwide pattern of legislation reverses a long tradition of conservative support for local rule.
Here are three recent flashpoints from the contest between GOP-run state legislatures and Democrats representing some of the South’s largest cities.
Tennessee: Expelling legislators over gun control protest
The GOP-controlled Tennessee House voted on Thursday to expel two urban Democrats for leading a demonstration in favor of gun control. The chamber also voted on whether to expel a third lawmaker for the same reason, but fell short of the required two-thirds majority.
In a protest after a shooter killed six people at Nashville’s The Covenant School, an emotional protest was held outside the state Capitol last Thursday, Nexstar’s WKRN reported.
The three urban Democratic representatives — Reps. Justin Jones (Nashville), Justin J. Pearson (Memphis) and Gloria Johnson (Knoxville) — led protesters into the House gallery, where they led “chants calling for gun reform,” according to The Tennessean.
On Monday, the state House voted to deactivate their keycards and strip them of their committee assignments, followed by Thursday’s vote over whether to expel them.
The state House is now the only viable path toward gun control for the three communities the lawmakers represent. As of 2021, the state “preempts” or overrules all local regulation of gun or ammunition sales, according to the nonprofit Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Since 2021, Tennessee has also banned municipalities from creating registries of gun owners.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) said Monday that the protesters had tried “to hold up the people’s business … instead of doing it the way that they should have done it.”
“They decided that them being a victim was more important than focusing on the six victims from Monday. And that’s appalling,” Sexton added.
Sexton also last week told a talk radio show that the protest was “at least equivalent, maybe worse depending on how you look at it, of doing an insurrection in the Capitol.”
Jones, the Nashville representative, fired back at his Republican colleagues Tuesday. It was “morally insane that a week after a mass shooting took six lives in our community, House Republicans only response is to expel us for standing with our constituents to call for gun control,” Jones wrote on Twitter.
Congressional Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) called on the state House Speaker on Wednesday to consider a lesser penalty.
“The three Democratic Members did violate the rules of decorum, however I believe expulsion to be too extreme a consequence,” Cohen wrote.
“There have only been a few previous expulsions in Tennessee history, all due to violations of statutory law, such as bribery.”
The federal representative had suggested that “heightened emotions prompted by the horrific Covenant School shootings that resulted in the death of six Tennesseans, including three nine-year-olds, should be a mitigating factor in any disciplinary response.”
Texas: Battling over business regulations
The Texas legislature is sparking outcry from city representatives over a bill that would nullify local ordinances that fall under broad areas of the Texas legal code.
Instead, in domains from labor to natural resources, House Bill 2127 — which made it out of committee on Monday — would replace municipal rules with less stringent state authority.
The National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) — a small business trade group backing the bill — says the measure is necessary to ensure “regulatory consistency” across Texas.
“The current patchwork of regulations that exists in Texas makes it harder for small business owners to expand their operations, take care of their employees, and meet their customers’ needs,” NFIB director Annie Spilman said in a statement on Monday.
Representatives of the state’s booming — and largely Democratic-controlled — cities and urban advocacy groups oppose many provisions of the bill, which would have impacts ranging from barring Dallas from banning gas-powered mowers to keeping Austin from enforcing mandatory breaks for construction workers.
But their main concern is structural: that the bill bars cities from entire areas of rulemaking, rather than specifically targeting areas small business owners oppose.
House Bill 2127 is “a weird and inefficient way of doing things,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League.
“We think it’s best to take up specific issues one by one and let’s have a talk — win or lose — as opposed to doing things top down,” Sandlin said.
The NFIB has argued in turn that cities have “misled” the media, overstating the bill’s likely impacts on local control.
But in at least one contentious area — rest breaks for construction workers laboring under the Texas sun — the NFIB’s own information appears misleading.
In an in-depth fact sheet, the NFIB has argued that preempting cities’ ability to require rest breaks won’t “lead to dangerous working conditions” because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) “has very detailed regulations … tailored to worksites.”
But OSHA does not have specific regulations around heat — something a group of Democratic attorneys general in February called on the agency to address.
While the agency can still cite and fine workplaces for egregious “general” safety violations — which can include ambient heat — only seven of the agency’s 696 enforcement actions in 2022 were for heat risk.
Austin and Dallas have required rest breaks for construction workers on the local level since 2010. But the new legislation would cast those protections in doubt.
Before it can become law, the bill still has to make it to a floor vote — something sponsor state Rep. Dustin Burrows’ (R-Lubbock) position as chair of the House Calendar Committee makes a virtual certainty — and pass both chambers.
Jackson, Mississippi: Expanding state police power in a Democratic-run capitol
Like Austin and Nashville, Jackson, Mississippi, occupies a paradoxical position as a Democratically controlled city that hosts a GOP-controlled legislature.
That legislature is guarded by the state-controlled Capitol Police, who currently have jurisdiction only over the statehouse and its grounds.
But if Gov. Tate Reeves (R) signs House Bill 1020 into law, the Capitol Police will gain jurisdiction over the entire city.
The bill passed the state Senate in March and the House on Friday, sending it to the governor’s desk, Nexstar’s WJTV reported.
Most concerning to Jackson Democrats: The bill would place certain areas within the majority-Black city — most of them majority-white neighborhoods — under the jurisdiction of a new court system.
That new system would send those convicted of misdemeanors to state prisons rather than to county jails, as currently happens, the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger reported.
It would be run by judges appointed by the Republican-appointed Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court and prosecutors appointed by the Republican attorney general, rather than elected.
GOP state Rep. Trey Lamar (Senatobia) told colleagues in February that the bill would allow faster processing of criminal cases.
“Jackson is the capital city. It belongs to all Mississippi,” Lamar said, according to the Associated Press.
Rep. Christopher Bell (D-Jackson) warned that state leadership was laying the groundwork for secession of the new court system centered on the statehouse area from the city itself — a departure that would pull the wealthiest neighborhoods from the city’s tax base.
“If it passes, will they next year introduce a city council for the capital city complex and a city manager for the capitol city complex? Is that next? Is it needed?” Bell asked.