Local sovereignty is integral to Texas’s frontier, “Remember the Alamo” self-image. But Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a spirited critic of federal overreach, has gone to war against the self-governance of Texas localities. This is not “the United States of Municipalities,” Abbott proclaimed in 2017. Over his two-plus terms, he and his GOP-controlled legislature have overridden the ability of local governments in Texas to, among other things, mandate paid sick leave, require COVID-19 vaccines for workers, expand voting options, and regulate oil and gas drilling within their own borders. 

Other Republican governors have been doing the same. Georgia’s Brian Kemp signed legislation in 2021 criminalizing the provision of food and water to voters waiting in line at local polling places. Florida’s Ron DeSantis has not only dictated what books local school libraries can and cannot stock but also signed a 2021 law making it illegal for municipalities to mandate electric charging stations at local gas stations.

The penchant of state-level Republicans for squashing municipal policies they don’t like has been made easier by the way the federal government has traditionally funded programs to help localities: by routing the money through the states. When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston in 2017, city lawmakers expected the state to pass along the more than $1 billion Congress had appropriated for emergency aid. Instead, they received nothing: The entire package was doled out to largely white, inland communities less affected by the storm. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner accused Abbott of a “money grab.” The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development later found that the stunt put Texas in violation of the Civil Rights Act. “Let me just tell you, that remains a sore spot,” Turner recently told me. His ire was further piqued when the Texas Department of Transportation announced in February 2021 that it would expand a highway that cuts through the city without changes requested by the mayor and other Houston lawmakers. The planned expansion would displace nearly 1,100 homes, 340 businesses, five churches, and two schools.

In the 21st century, the arrival of an educated, multiracial workforce in places like Houston has collided with the disproportionate power Republicans have accrued at the state level to create a novel political phenomenon: Increasingly blue metro areas are finding themselves up against increasingly red state governments—and losing. If demographics are destiny, governors facing an in-migration pattern that worryingly resembles the long-term marginalization of their conservative politics are exploiting the legal and fiscal preeminence states have over localities in new and extreme ways. “Don’t California My Texas” has become Abbott’s trademarked mantra. In February, Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene captured the mood when she suggested that red states should block new arrivals from blue states from voting for a period of five years. Governors like Abbott and DeSantis, with the backing of a conservative Supreme Court supermajority determined to buttress the power of states, are steamrolling the will of cities to govern in ways their voters think best.

But that dynamic is not going unchallenged at the national level. One of the least noticed but most profound changes in Washington over the past two years has been a concerted effort by Joe Biden’s administration and Democrats in Congress to liberate localities from the overweening power of state governments—a change the Washington Monthly called for in January 2021. (See “How Biden Can Use Federal Power to Liberate Localities,” by Daniel Block.) 

This has happened in innumerable ways, large and small. For instance, in March 2021, Biden’s Department of Transportation told Texas to halt the Houston highway project until a federal investigation of civil rights and environmental justice concerns could be completed. (The project resumed after two years and will now reflect many of the changes Turner requested.) More significantly, the administration has worked to restructure spending bills in ways that shift the balance of power from state to local governments. For example, the COVID relief package Donald Trump signed in 2020, the CARES Act, sent almost four times as many federal dollars to state governments ($110 billion) as to cities ($29 billion), and none to municipalities with fewer than 500,000 residents. Those smaller communities had to apply to their state governments for the funds, and nearly 30 percent got nothing. By contrast, under the COVID relief bill Biden signed in March 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act, Washington sent $130 billion directly to municipalities of all sizes, more than half as much as the $220 billion states received. In an even greater break from past practice, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which Biden signed in November 2021, appropriated $196 billion—a third of all surface transportation spending in the bill—for competitive grants that municipalities can apply for directly, without having to seek permission from their state governments. Competitive spending in previous infrastructure bills was negligible. 

Credit: Gall Sigler

Spending priorities in Washington seldom change so dramatically and quickly. Yet the mainstream press has almost completely missed this shift. In part, that’s because the administration itself doesn’t talk much about it, and when it does, it is in resolutely nonpartisan terms. “Having been a mayor, I noticed [that] however well intentioned folks in the state capital were, they didn’t always see things quite the way they looked on the ground,” Pete Buttigieg, the ever-careful transportation secretary, told the Washington Monthly.

The anger liberal cities feel toward their repressive Republican state governments is more than matched by the fury conservative towns feel toward their Democratically controlled state governments—to the point where there is open talk of secession.

Giving localities more freedom to deploy federal dollars as they see fit isn’t, in fact, inherently partisan. It only seems so in the context of GOP-controlled states trying to do the opposite. Moreover, the anger liberal cities feel toward their repressive Republican state governments is more than matched by the fury conservative towns in blue states feel toward the policies and spending priorities of their Democratically controlled state governments—to the point where, in red regions of states like Colorado and Oregon, there is open talk of secession. That’s why reasonable leaders in both parties who worry about American democracy going off the rails should want the pro-locality shift in federal policy Biden has started not only to continue, but to expand. 

In January of this year, Joe Biden spoke before a group of mayors in the East Room of the White House and did a little compare-and-contrast bragging. “With the CARES Act we passed under the previous administration,” he said, “you had to go to your legislatures for permission to get the money.” That, he said, ran counter to his longtime belief in how federal aid should be structured. “When I wrote the COPS bill years ago, you didn’t have to go to the legislature or your governor to determine—you could apply directly. 

“Well, that’s what we’re talking about,” he went on. “We made sure the American Rescue Plan empowered you directly—directly.” 

In truth, as a U.S. senator for 36 years, Biden voted for bills that funneled federal funds primarily through the states, with little directed to municipalities. And as president, he refused to veto a bill in Congress to overturn a Washington, D.C., city council measure to reduce mandatory minimum sentences in the District—a decision that might have been politically expedient but is hardly consistent with respect for local decision-making.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which Biden signed in November 2021, appropriated $196 billion—a third of all surface transportation spending in the bill—for grants that municipalities can apply for directly, without having to seek permission from their state governments.

Still, Biden’s sympathy for local government leaders is long-standing and rooted in a little-known fact about his political career. The first public office Biden was elected to, in 1970 at the age of 27, was commissioner for New Castle County in northern Delaware. “I learned early on, if you’re in the county, you got to go through someone else to get help—you gotta go to your governor, you gotta go to your state legislator, you gotta go to the state senators,” he recalled at a conference for county officials in February. “We always did better when there was direct funding for the things that related to the county.” 

Then, as now, tensions existed between urban and rural interests over spending and other decisions. For instance, politicians representing cities wanted funding for projects like mass transit, whereas those from more rural areas wanted money spent on roads. But back in the 1970s—indeed, for most of U.S. history—disagreements between rural and urban interests weren’t necessarily partisan in nature. Rural lawmakers (depending on the state) were as likely to be Democrats as Republicans, and spending battles typically involved bipartisan dealmaking—for instance, urban Democrats aligning with suburban lawmakers, who were largely Republicans, to get money for metro-wide bus service. 

Only in the past 20 years, as the parties sorted more starkly geographically—with metro areas becoming overwhelmingly blue, and rural and exurban areas becoming overwhelmingly Republican—have the battles over the funding of local communities become reliably partisan and ideological. In 2011, for example, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the Ron DeSantis of that era, signed legislation preempting the ability of local governments to mandate that private businesses in their jurisdictions offer paid sick leave, as Milwaukee had done. Soon after that, 15 more states passed similar statutes. In 2012, Barack Obama took 69 percent of the vote in cities with more than 500,000 residents while winning just 22 percent of total counties, the lowest share in history. Meanwhile, the Republican Party was methodically consolidating power over state governments: Between 2010 and 2013, the number of states with a Republican ruling trifecta jumped from nine to 25, their largest state lawmaking majority since the 1920s. Governors and attorneys general launched an endless barrage of lawsuits against Obama’s government. 

Defying federal rules and turning down funds became fashionable, and governors in Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, and Louisiana rejected aid for building high-speed rail, despite the protestations of city dwellers. The Supreme Court faithfully served the interests of states in disputes with the federal government, striking down the Obamacare mandate to expand Medicaid in 2012. (More than a decade later, 11 states, Texas and Florida among them, have still not expanded Medicaid. In those two states and other holdouts, polls suggest that support for expansion has a strong majority.) 

With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, this revenge tale against cosmopolitan progressives reached a crescendo. The new president followed alarming threats against immigrants with an executive order to withhold federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities that declined to hold in jail inmates who would otherwise go free, pending checks on their immigration status by federal authorities. Courts ultimately blocked Trump’s order on the grounds that he didn’t have the statutory authority. Nevertheless, some Republican governors, including DeSantis, Abbott, and Arkansas’s Asa Hutchinson, signed legislation banning sanctuary city policies. 

When Biden took office, he signaled a new era with the appointment of three former mayors to his cabinet: Pete Buttigieg at the Department of Transportation, Marcia Fudge at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Marty Walsh at the Department of Labor.

His first major piece of legislation, the American Rescue Plan, was a life raft for cities and towns in financial free fall during the pandemic. States had not lost as much revenue as predicted, but localities were struggling. Of the 1.3 million jobs lost among state and local governments between February 2020 and March 2021, three-quarters were at the local level. The huge influx of cash helped localities avoid planned layoffs, backfill lost revenue, and fund vaccine outreach and distribution. The money helped Washington, D.C., offer free testing and vaccines across the city seven days a week, and Boston to set up a grocery delivery program for food stamp recipients. Houston received $607,769,139, most of which went to budget deficits; extra funds were put toward programs like an initiative to house 7,000 homeless Houstonians, which got a $35 million earmark. “Those dollars are getting out the door,” Mayor Turner told me. “That is an example of a successful design of how to distribute federal dollars.” 

Biden’s second major legislative achievement, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, is helping localities finance long-awaited projects starved for funds by the recalcitrance of their state governments. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the 70-year-old Wilcox Bridge has deteriorated to the point that it can’t support heavy vehicles anymore, forcing fire trucks to take long detours to reach certain neighborhoods; city officials say a $25 million grant funding a renovation will drastically improve emergency response times. In Clearwater, Florida, the regional transit CEO Brad Miller told the Tampa Bay Times that he is “the fourth transit authority director over the past two decades to try to secure funding” for a new public transit center in the city’s downtown. With a $20 million BIL grant, the project can finally proceed. 

And in Houston, Biden’s infrastructure bill is funding a long-sought revamp of Telephone Road, one of the most heavily trafficked arteries of southeast Houston. Despite cutting through densely populated city neighborhoods, the six-lane thoroughfare is notoriously ill-accommodating of pedestrians and bikers. With BIL funds, Telephone Road will get a facelift: safer bike lanes, wider sidewalks that connect to transit hubs, and CCTV cameras. “It’s really exciting to see the Department of Transportation investing federal funds in projects that are going to advance pedestrian infrastructure, not just vehicular infrastructure,” Gabe Cazares, the director of LINK Houston, an organization that advocates for a more equitable transportation system in the city, told me. 

Biden’s other major legislative achievements also redound to the benefit of localities. Last August’s CHIPS Act gives local governments a seat at the table when it comes to permitting federally funded microchip manufacturing. The billions of dollars in tax incentives the Inflation Reduction Act, signed a week later, provides for renewable energy would not normally be available to tax-exempt entities like cities, but the bill includes a novel mechanism that allows municipalities to take advantage of these credits in the form of direct payments. 

“DeSantis claims that Florida is the free state, but every time you turn around, he’s telling us what we cannot do,” said Wayne Messam, the mayor of Miramar, Florida, who is  planning to apply for federal electric vehicle charging grants.

For many local officials, Biden’s disposition toward localities stands in stark contrast with that of Republican governors. The difference is “night and day,” Wayne Messam, the Democratic mayor of Miramar, Florida, and the president of the state’s League of Mayors, told me. “DeSantis claims that Florida is the free state, but every time you turn around, he’s telling us what we cannot do,” said Messam, who is planning to apply for federal infrastructure grants to build EV charging stations in his city. “Yet you have a Biden administration that has worked hand in hand with mayors across this country … I just think that it’s just a difference between the two parties.”

The Biden administration, and Democrats generally, have been relatively quiet about how their biggest legislative wins of the past two years do so much to liberate localities from state GOP oppression. Why? A major reason is that, traditionally, Democrats have been deeply wary of local control. Indeed, for decades, the liberal agenda often involved passing regulations that constrained local decision-making in order to advance national goals—typically for good reason. In the 1960s, Democrats passed civil rights laws that overturned racist state and local voting and segregation laws. In the 1970s, they passed environmental laws that mandated restrictions on local zoning and land use. 

But this activist period of Democratic policy making inspired a backlash that Republicans exploited. In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan spun the narrative that the progressive reform agenda and centralized spending programs of the decades prior had encroached on local autonomy. He swept into office promising “to put an end to the merry-go-round where our money becomes Washington’s money, to be spent by the states and cities exactly the way the federal bureaucrats tell us it has to be spent.” He soon replaced the federal bureaucracy’s multitude of narrow categorical grants with consolidated block grants that states could use as they wanted. His appeals to states’ rights helped enshrine Republicans as the party of local autonomy in the public imagination thereafter through the subtle conflation of these two distinct levels of government. Thanks to Reagan, it’s Democrats who are thought to imperiously prescribe policy from on high. 

But the Republican Party proved to be no friend of municipalities. Under Reagan, federal aid flowing directly to local governments without first passing through states declined from 12 percent to 4 percent of total municipal revenue, and it has never recovered. For a generation now, GOP governors and state legislators have been gleefully overriding local government initiatives, typically in the service of conservative culture war issues or corporate interests looking to minimize economic regulations. 

As a consequence, local governments, which have no independent powers under the U.S. Constitution, have for many years had no real champions in either party. This is true not just in terms of direct government programs, like infrastructure funding, but also in the way the federal government has chosen to structure markets. Over the past four decades, both parties have supported the deregulation of key industries, like finance and transportation, and refrained from enforcing anti-monopoly statutes. As a result, in cities and towns all over America, locally owned businesses—be they banks, retail stores, news outlets, or manufacturing firms—have been put out of business or gobbled up by large oligopolistic corporations. Meanwhile, smaller cities and towns have found themselves without reliable and affordable—or even any—airline and rail connectivity. In these and other ways, the federal government has contributed to the evisceration of local communities that sociologists like Robert Putnam have documented. 

Biden has been relatively quiet about how his biggest legislative wins of the past two years do so much to liberate localities from state GOP oppression. Why? A major reason is that, traditionally, Democrats have been deeply wary of local control.

The Biden administration, with its stepped-up antitrust enforcement and pro-localities spending legislation, has taken a welcome first step in changing that. But the administration has not articulated a vision of local empowerment that unifies these policies, perhaps assuming that it wouldn’t compute with liberals who associate the concept with “Don’t Tread on Me” libertarianism. Yet explaining and defending his empowerment of local communities could be both good politics for Biden and his party and good policy for the country. Contrasting his support for localities with state-level GOP hostility to them would be especially useful if the opponent Biden winds up facing in 2024 is Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor who most conspicuously flaunts his despotism over local communities. 

A pro-localities agenda, taken further, could allow Democrats to advance their goals in an era of GOP dominance at the state level. To get around the 11 states that are stonewalling expansion of Medicaid, Democrats could pursue legislation that allows local jurisdictions to opt into the federal program independent of their states. Municipalities have proved more willing partners for Democrats’ policy agenda than states, and routing the largest possible shares of future infrastructure, water, housing, and disaster relief funds directly to localities would help ensure that federal money is spent more judiciously.

Democrats may also be able to protect localities from state preemption laws through legislative means. As the Lehman College sociologist Nathan Newman has suggested, Democrats could push legislation that makes preemption a civil rights violation when it disproportionately impacts people of color. 

A pro-localities agenda could also be a way to lower the temperature on some of the country’s most divisive issues. While Democrats should fight hard to pass legislation enshrining Roe v. Wade as the law of the land, if that proves politically impossible they should consider offering a compromise bill that would allow individual municipalities to decide if abortion should be legal in their jurisdiction. In the unlikely event Republicans supported such a measure, the practical effect would be that women in red states that ban abortion and even abortion pills could more easily get to towns and cities in their states rather than having to travel hundreds of miles to seek reproductive health care in other states. 

Crucially, Democrats may find a receptive audience for a local-empowerment agenda outside their base. Polls show that local governments are the most trusted by conservatives and liberals alike. Republican governors’ attacks on big cities infuriate progressives, but their neglect of basics like clean drinking water, broadband access, and crumbling infrastructure also frustrates some voters and officials in red areas of those states. That’s why bipartisan groups of mayors in Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and elsewhere across the country celebrated the infrastructure bill’s new investments in localities. “Mayors have been consistent over 10 years,” David Holt, the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City, told PBS. “Mayors have come to that same White House in the Obama administration, in the Trump administration, and now in the Biden administration, seeking virtually the same thing.” Finally, he said, they got it.  

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Will Norris is an editor at the Washington Monthly.