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Will States Stop Cities From Combating Climate Change?

With Republicans in full control in half the states, climate change skeptics have more power to target environmental programs.

If there is one word to describe Arizona’s 2016 legislative session, that word is “preemption.” Last year, state lawmakers stripped cities and counties of the authority to regulate everything from backyard chickens and dog breeders to Airbnb and other home-sharing services. Collectively, legislators introduced more than a dozen bills preempting local control. In March, the state passed the mother of all local preemption bills, a law that withholds shared revenue if a town, city or county passes a regulation that “violates state law or the constitution of Arizona.” 

So it wasn’t a surprise to many when Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton expressed frustration with state lawmakers. “The state legislature, if they’re a conservative body, should pass conservative public policy,” Stanton told Slate in September. “But don’t preempt us from passing policies that represent our priorities.” 

One of those priorities is the environment. Stanton predicted in the interview that states and localities will clash over climate change. “Cities are going to have to adopt aggressive policies on climate change,” he said. “I do so under constant threat that [a lawmaker is] going to try to preempt us at the legislature, in a body that has, arguably, a majority of climate deniers.”

Stanton’s concern is not without merit. Among the bills the legislature passed last year were two that preempted cities on environmental policies. The first was a bill that overrode a ban on plastic bags in Tempe; the second forbade cities from requiring property owners and landlords to disclose their energy usage.

But is Stanton right? Will 2017 be the year of states acting to preempt cities and counties on climate change and other environmental policies? 

It’s hard to tell, and so far there’s no obvious trend. In 2016, for instance, “no states enacted legislation that would preempt local governments from taking climate change into account,” says Kim Tyrrell, program director on the environment for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). To her knowledge, there are only two instances in the last five years in which a state legislature passed such a law. One of those was famously mocked by comedian Stephen Colbert in 2012. The Science Panel of the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission issued a report that year outlining the possibility of sea-level rise over the next 100 years. The report wasn’t well received, and the legislature passed a law forbidding communities from using it to pass new rules. “I think this is a brilliant solution,” Colbert said at the time. “If your science gives you a result that you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved.”

The other instance was in 2014, when Oklahoma adopted a bill stating that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s resources should be dedicated to improvements in weather forecasting and not to studying climate change. 

Beyond that, Tyrrell found only a smattering of bills attempting to preempt environmental policies -- most of them in Oklahoma. The legislature there proposed a resolution to prohibit certain regulatory actions relating to greenhouse gases and air quality requirements by the Environmental Protection Agency, and, like Arizona, considered a bill to prohibit municipalities and counties from implementing rules that do not conform to state statutes. Both efforts failed. 

One policy that has gained some traction in state legislatures, though, is the attempt to override local bans on plastic bags. Besides Arizona, Idaho and Missouri have forbidden localities from regulating the sale or use of plastic bags, including the imposition of any fees or taxes. In general, however, most of the bills introduced in states were to decrease the use of plastic bags. Between 2015 and 2016, 71 out of the 77 bills introduced in 23 states sought to impose a ban, fee or recycling requirement on plastic bags, according to NCSL.

But while there is no discernible trend in state legislatures to strip cities and counties of their authority to regulate climate change, mayors are cautious. Many cities have renewable energy and zero-waste goals. With Republicans in full control in half the states, climate change skeptics in legislatures much like Arizona’s might feel empowered to target such programs. “I was elected to represent and move the values of our citizens forward,” says Phoenix’s Stanton. “As cities like mine act to more aggressively reduce the impact of climate change, mayors shouldn’t have to worry about the state.”

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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