It used to be a sort of hobby for Arizona legislators.
They’d hear about some ungodly liberal thing going on in Bisbee, Tucson or Tempe, and they’d pass a law to prevent any Arizona city from doing it anymore.
Tucson held a gun-buyback program in January 2013 and moved to destroy the guns, for example. That spring, the Legislature quickly passed and the governor signed a bill mandating that cities resell any precious guns received in a buyback, not destroy them.
“Pre-emption” is what these bills are called, and it used to be plain legislative fun, a way for the GOP-led Legislature and governor to shut down ideas coming from Democrat-dominated cities.
“You say you want to ban plastic bags? Then we’ll ban cities from banning plastic bags!” That was one of them.
Now, though, pre-emption has become a legislative obsession in Phoenix, their joie de vivre, their reason for being.
There were three pre-emption bills introduced in 2013, according to a count maintained by the Arizona League of Cities and Towns. That number went down to two in 2014, then jumped to nine in 2015.
This year, there have been 14 bills introduced intending to overrule cities’ self-governance. One would exempt some rental-property owners from paying local rental taxes. Another would make illegal any fees imposed by cities on pawn-shop transactions. Another would prohibit counties from imposing regulations not permitted by state law.
“This Legislature, this session, is expressing the most hostilities to cities, towns and counties in my time as mayor,” Tucson mayor Jonathan Rothschild told me Friday. “I don’t have a good sense of why.”
Of the 14, four have been signed into law so far. SB 1487, which Gov. Doug Ducey signed March 17, is the granddaddy of all pre-emption bills.
That atomic bomb of a law allows any individual legislator to report to the state attorney general if that legislator believes a city ordinance or regulation violates state law. If the attorney general rules it does, and if the city doesn’t address the problem within 30 days, then the city loses its state-shared revenue, which is redistributed to other cities.
If the city decides to fight the decision, it must post a bond equal to the value of state-shared revenue it’s received in the previous six months. To give a sense of the importance of this money source, it makes up $134 million, or about 27 percent, of the city of Tucson’s general fund this year.
This was a ham-handed abuse of power, intended to turn even the slow-witted members of our Legislature into masters of all they survey. It also creates an unfair venue for deciding these conflicts when a perfectly acceptable one already exists: the courts.
This isn’t to say pre-emption is never justified. Jonathan Paton, a former Republican state senator from Tucson, introduced several pre-emption bills while in the Legislature. He said they are often a necessary protection against local governments that are hard to fight.
“At the city level, there’s a whole host of regulations that are up against the small business and the city resident,” he said. “The only thing protecting them is the state constitution and state law.”
He also noted that in the past, the cities have had strong lobbies that shot down many pre-emption bills. But now, even some of the Republican mayors and council members across the state are starting to get fed up with pre-emption excesses.
“What possible hubris could drive one single legislator to think he or she has more wisdom than the local elected officials who have been chosen by the voters to govern their communities?” three mayors — Mark Nexsen of Lake Havasu City, Jay Tibshraeny of Chandler and Mark Mitchell of Tempe — wrote in a letter requesting that Ducey veto the bill.
Nexsen and Tibshraeny are Republicans, Mitchell a Democrat.
“They must be bored up there,” Benson City Council member Chris Moncada, a Republican, told me. “They delve into this stuff that has nothing to do with them.
“If they want to run a city, they should run for city council.”
Marana Mayor Ed Honea, a Republican with close ties to the legislative majority, told me he understands what they and the governor are trying to do by pre-empting cities who want to set their own business regulations or labor standards, such as minimum wages and paid sick leave. The idea is to make even, dependable regulations for businesses across Arizona.
But he’s winced at some examples of overreach, such as when the state ordered cities like Marana not to hold elections in March and May.
“We would like to have as much authority here as we can possibly can,” Honea said. “There are things the state wants to do — it’s just how far in the weeds does the state want to go?”
Charter cities such as Tucson have some protection from the state. Our election procedures, for example, are up to us, courts have ruled. And some other power grabs by the state could be challenged in court. But newer municipalities such as Marana, Oro Valley and Sahuarita are not charter cities and are less likely to win a challenge.
All that is bad enough, but of course the state’s zeal for pre-emption also comes with heaping helpings of hypocrisy.
The most obvious example, a point that has been made many times to no avail, is that the Legislature’s other obsession is complaining about federal government mandates and overreach. They’re so upset by this that both houses have committees assigned to act on issues of federalism.
But their grasp of the importance of local control seems to end at the doors of the state Capitol. It does not extend to our far-flung city halls.
The other hypocritical point: The state itself is imposing unfunded mandates on the cities and counties at the same time it is trying to wrest the local governments’ power away. Legislators are even limiting the way cities and counties can raise revenue, while at the same time passing off more expenses on them.
The most notorious example is a change in the law governing how sales tax is collected. The Legislature ordered the state to take over collections of all municipal sales tax in 2013, but lawmakers still haven’t been able to create a system that works. The current estimate is that the state may be ready by the end of the year, Tucson finance director Silvia Amparano told me.
But in the meantime, the state has needed money to set up the collection system, and it has charged the municipalities for that. Last year, the city of Tucson was assessed $1.5 million to build this system it doesn’t want and still can’t use.
This is the breathless depth of the cynicism of the Legislature’s power grab. It will charge cities for powers the state has taken away.
The rejection of diversity inherent in these moves is also breathtaking. On some issues, a city ought to be allowed to be different. To a constitutional extent, it ought to be allowed to reflect its local culture and experiment with new policies.
But the Legislature and governor have declared this year that they know better.
We all know how likely that is.