Preemption is when a higher form of government (such as a state legislature) limits a lower form of government (such as a city council) from taking action on an issue. It is becoming an increasingly common state legislative tactic and extending to a greater number of issue areas.
In addition to blocking local lawmaking, another emerging preemption threat has seen states looking to punish cities and local lawmakers for passing local laws, such as by fining local lawmakers or withholding state funding for municipalities. This hurts local democracy and can perpetuate health disparities.
While local governments are uniquely positioned to meet the needs of the people in their communities and are often key in passing laws that promote health, safety, equity, and civic participation, remember that local control is not always best. Local governments don’t always pass laws that promote common good and equity, and state and federal government have roles to play in creating a safe and equitable society.
In the past, some local governments have passed laws to discriminate and segregate. In those cases, state and federal government have needed to step in and create laws that set a minimum standard or “floor” that local governments must meet. This is referred to as “floor preemption,” and while it sets a minimum standard, it allows a state or locality to do more to protect health and promote equity. People believe that states should set uniform, minimum standards, and that cities should be able to build on these “floor” laws and pass improvements that reflect their local needs and values.
Some laws being passed by state governments today, however, are different—they restrict local governments’ ability to pass their own laws and/or prevent them from strengthening laws set by the state. This is sometimes called “ceiling preemption” and is a tremendous concern for public health and equity. A growing number of these laws are being used to create inequities by preventing local governments from addressing disparities.
To advance health equity, we must ensure that public policies at both the state and local level prioritize areas of greatest need first. Local lawmakers should have the ability to pass laws that address the situation in their communities in order to do so.
In this toolkit, you will find a variety of resources to help kickstart your own campaign to advocate for your locally elected officials maintaining their ability to pass laws that promote health and equity and improve the lives of the people in your community. It’s critical that our state lawmakers understand the need for local governments to act on behalf of their communities and build on progress being made at the state level.