How and Why States Bigfoot Their Cities

Philadelphia, you're not alone.

State Capitol Harrisburg

Tyrannical. |

Harrisburg is Philadelphia’s do-nothing overlord that’s constantly foiling our fun, kind of like Bill Lumbergh from Office Space. Take UberX, for example. Mayor Nutter’s on board. City Council supports it. And yet the Philadelphia Parking Authority, patronage arm of the GOP that it is, refuses to grant the company a license to operate UberX legally on our streets.

It’s a tired story: Harrisburg bigfooting Philadelphia. Why, in a single year—2001—the statehouse seized control of the Parking Authority and the School District of Philadelphia. Harrisburg sucks up money generated by red-light cameras in Philadelphia and spends it on transportation projects across the state. More recently, the state has made the city beg—beg—for the authority to tax its own citizens.

So it’s somehow a little comforting to hear that this is happening across the country, with state lawmakers from Texas to Michigan to New Mexico blocking local initiatives on the regular through so-called “preemption laws,” as the New York Times reported earlier this week. In, Texas, where the statehouse is Republican-dominated, municipal bans on plastic bags, texting while driving and fracking have been cut down by politicians in Austin. Same goes for local legislation covering E-Cigarette regulation and anti-discrimination, which has been curtailed in states throughout the South and Midwest. Because Republicans control 69 out of the 100 state legislative chambers, the prohibitive measures skew conservative.

What’s driving this preemption boom? Special interests. Circumventing local ordinances is a hallmark of organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a powerful nonprofit representing private-sector interests which ghostwrites laws. The National Rifle Association is also often at the center of preemption legislation. At the end of last year, the NRA successfully swayed Harrisburg lawmakers to pass a bill granting them legal standing to sue cities that’ve adopted gun-control policies like reporting stolen weapons—Philadelphia among them.

Just in the past year, Harrisburg has gotten in Philly’s way by stalling the school-funding cigarette tax and threatening to preempt the sick-leave legislation that Mayor Nutter signed this month.

Last year, a former colleague of mine penned a story in Philly Mag titled “Philly to Harrisburg: You’re Fired.” The gist of the piece was that Pennsylvania’s capitol would be much less corrupt if it relocated to Philadelphia—as state capitols tend to be cleaner when closer to big cities. It’s wishful thinking, of course, but one wonders if state lawmakers would be quite so hostile to Philadelphia if they spent a little more time in it.