JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Alarmed about cities trying to outlaw plastic bags, the director of the Missouri Grocers Association decided to do something about it. So Dan Shaul turned to his state legislator- himself – and guided a bill to passage barring local governments from banning the bags.
Shaul’s dual role in state government and business may be a bit out of the norm. Yet his actions are not. In capitols across the country, businesses are increasingly using their clout to back laws prohibiting cities and counties from doing things that might affect their ability to make money.
In the past five years, roughly a dozen states have enacted laws barring local governments from requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave to employees. The number of states banning local minimum wages has grown to 15. And while oil-rich states such as Texas and Oklahoma are pursuing bills banning local restrictions on drilling, other states where agriculture is big business have been banning local limitations on the types of seeds sown for crops.
It seems no issue is too small for businesses to take to capitol halls.
Wisconsin has banned local bans on sugary drinks. Arizona and Florida have barred local governments from forbidding toys in fast-food meals. And Utah has barred cities from requiring bicyclists to be served in drive-thru lanes.
In each case, states have stepped in after city officials somewhere in the nation proposed local policies that business leaders didn’t like. Businesses have warned lawmakers that a potential patchwork of local regulations could be bad for the economy.
“We need to give companies and businesses some predictability and some consistency in their operations so that they can grow,” said Shaul, a freshman Republican representative from the St. Louis suburb of Imperial, whose anti-bag ban measure is pending before Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
Environmental activists in Columbia, who pushed for the ban on single-use plastic bags at grocery stores, were jolted by the state intervention.
“I was horrified, just really demoralized,” when the legislation passed, said Sierra Club member Jan Dye. “They just want to remove local control.”
The Missouri bill goes beyond plastic bags. It also would also prohibit local governments from requiring businesses to provide employees paid sick leave, vacation or health, disability and retirement benefits. And it would block cities and counties from adopting their own “living wage” requirements.
States have pre-empted some local policies for decades. A movement to restrict local gun ordinances began in 1971, for example, and has been enacted as law in 45 states, according to the National Rifle Association. State lawmakers in Oklahoma and Michigan this year are pushing similar measures for knives.
Some experts trace a rise in states pre-empting local ordinances to the 2010 elections, when Republicans won control of 25 legislatures and 29 governors’ offices. Republicans have expanded their power since then and now hold complete control of three times as many legislatures and governors’ offices as Democrats.
In some cases, those new Republican officeholders have received generous financial support from business interests. Shaul, for example, got about one-quarter of his contributions for his 2014 campaign from people and organizations affiliated with the food industry. In other instances, business lobbyists have simply found a more sympathetic ear in GOP legislatures.
“The fights over economic policy have overwhelmingly shifted to the states” away from the federal government, said Gordon Lafer, a political scientist at the University of Oregon who studies state labor laws. He added: “There’s kind of a race going on, which is can local ordinances be passed faster than influence at the state level can pre-empt them?”
In Utah, a new Salt Lake City ordinance requiring businesses to serve bicyclists in their drive-thru lanes lasted only a few months before the restaurant industry persuaded legislators to overturn it. Restaurant owners argued that mixing bikes with cars would be dangerous.
City officials “were not going to negotiate with us any further,” said Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association. So “our only recourse was to go and present the issue before the state legislature.”
Nationally, the restaurant industry also has backed state efforts to pre-empt local wage-and-benefits mandates. At one national meeting of conservative state lawmakers, a restaurant association executive circulated model legislation based on a 2011 Wisconsin law that pre-empted a Milwaukee ordinance.
National Restaurant Association spokeswoman Christin Fernandez said “businesses are operating in an already challenging regulatory environment” and some policies are best decided statewide instead of city-by-city.
For some bicyclists who supported Salt Lake City’s drive-thru ordinance, the state’s action seemed hypocritical. That’s because state lawmakers often object when the federal government sets the rules.
“It’s just being contradictory, it’s just frustrating,” said Deb Henry, a bicycle rider who is president of the Bicycle Collective, which refurbishes bikes for low-income residents in Salt Lake City.
But such assertions by local activists and officials may not carry much weight. That’s because the U.S. Constitution says the states hold all powers not delegated to the federal government. Cities and counties, in turn, get their powers from the states.
City councils and mayors “don’t have some kind of organic legal authority to do whatever they want,” said Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Republican attorney general candidate from Columbia. “It would be absolute bedlam what some of these communities would do to their citizens if they had that ability.”