In Red States, Cities Can’t Win

The lack of urban legislators in Republican states means cities will have their concerns largely ignored or challenged.
March 2015
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer is partnering with other cities in Kentucky to get urban concerns on legislative agendas. David Kidd
By Alan Greenblatt  |  Staff Writer
Alan Greenblatt is a Governing staff writer.

Big cities have long had a hard time getting their way in state legislatures. But in a more partisan era, the lobbying job for mayors has gotten even harder.

The reason is that partisan divisions have become more aligned with regional ones. Most urban delegations are dominated by Democrats, while most rural and many suburban representatives are Republican. Two-thirds of the nation’s legislative chambers are held by the GOP. “It’s very hard to find a Democratic area that is not in a large or semi-large city in the state,” says Barbara Bollier, part of the Republican majority in the Kansas House.

Of course, there are still some rural Democrats and some urban Republicans. And generally, legislative leaders understand that big cities are important economic engines they must keep tuned up. But the lack of urban voices within many majorities means cities are bound to lose out on some appropriations. “When the urban economies are responsible for 70 percent of the state’s revenue, you would think we would get more respect, but we don’t,” says Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. “In our state, it seems like the easiest way for a rural legislator to score points at home is to take a shot at Oklahoma City.”

A number of states have already preempted local moves regarding gun control, minimum wage increases and mandated paid sick leave. And now city officials are worried states will move to block even more local actions. Some Republican legislators, for instance, want to overturn gay rights ordinances enacted by big cities. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently took office complaining about local ordinances banning fracking and plastic bags. The cities in question know that few state leaders will have their back. In the Texas House, only one Democrat represents a district outside the state’s five largest cities or the Rio Grande Valley.

There’s not much Democrats can do about it, either. “When you look at the General Assembly in Missouri” -- where Democrats are scarce outside St. Louis and Kansas City -- “there really isn’t much interest in urban issues,” says Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri. “And the Democrats have no way of getting many of their concerns on the agenda.”

In response to this trend, major metropolitan areas in some states are forming alliances, hoping to speak collectively with a more powerful voice. In Kentucky, Louisville has joined with other sizable cities to form a “metro alliance for growth.” One of the ideas they’re pushing is a local option sales tax, which would allow communities of any size -- not just the largest cities -- to raise taxes to pay for projects. Louisville officials are optimistic about its chances, believing that the idea of local control should appeal even to Republicans suspicious of tax increases.

Some big cities, in other words, are ready to adopt an argument in state capitols that states themselves have long used in Washington: If you aren’t going to offer us any help, at least, please, leave us alone.