RALEIGH – The decision by the North Carolina legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory to overturn Charlotte’s anti-discrimination ordinance for LGBT citizens isn’t simply another skirmish in the decades-old culture war between conservatives and progressives.
It’s the latest muscle-flexing by leaders in Republican-controlled states to rebuff local governments — often large cities run by Democrats — implementing policies they disagree with or haven’t sanctioned.
“You see the most liberal city councils and mayors over-regulating,” said North Carolina House Majority Leader Mike Hager, from small-town Rutherfordton. He added that the state can’t become a patchwork of key commerce and employment rules, depending on the city.
“By law we have that responsibility to make sure that the cities and counties do what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Over the past year, Alabama legislators voided Birmingham’s decision to increase the minimum wage, while Missouri lawmakers blocked similar pay increases by all cities and counties. They also barred local governments from banning plastic bags used by retailers. Tennessee and Arkansas legislators also have passed laws overturning municipal gay rights ordinances.
“We’re increasingly seeing that the policy battleground is between the states and the localities,” said John Dinan, a Wake Forest University professor and expert in state constitutions and relationships between levels of government.
There are few states where the fissure is more noticeable than North Carolina. Municipalities once considered a powerful lobbying force within the General Assembly have been in retreat since Republicans took over the legislature in 2011 for the first time in 140 years. Current top House and Senate leaders live outside urban centers like Charlotte and Raleigh, which generally skew Democratic.
“They’ve really been putting their fingers into quite a few local issues,” said Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan. She is a Democrat, though the City Council is officially nonpartisan. The legislature last year reconfigured Greensboro’s city council districts over the city’s objections and stopped the city’s practice of accepting identification cards created by a local nonprofit for immigrants unlawfully in the country. “We have a conservative legislature and we have progressive urban centers, and I think it’s the natural rubbing of the two different philosophies.”
Canceling the Democratic-controlled Charlotte City Council ordinance March 23 has led to calls by more than 130 corporate executives to repeal the law they say legalizes discrimination. The law goes beyond what became the focal point for GOP leaders — preventing transgender people from using public bathrooms aligned with their gender identity.
On Tuesday, McCrory issued an executive order expanding protections for many state workers based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He also said he will ask the General Assembly in the coming weeks to restore the ability of all workers to sue over employment discrimination on the basis of issues like race, age and gender in state court. That ability had been removed in the law.
But he said he sees no need for a wholesale repeal or reversal of its provisions on transgender bathroom access.
Lawmakers prevented all local governments from passing protection for gays, lesbians, and bisexual and transgender people with public accommodations and left the groups out of a new statewide nondiscrimination policy. Schools and state agencies now must limit multi-stall bathroom use to only people of the same biological sex. Gay-rights groups sued last week to block the law, which also went beyond LGBT issues by reaffirming a ban on cities and counties raising the minimum wage above $7.25.
Since 2011, the GOP legislature has rolled back statewide municipal land annexation powers and attempted to wrest Charlotte’s airport from city control. Last year, it prevented cities and counties from passing their own fracking bans and creating “sanctuary city” rules protecting immigrants. Additional home design standards were prohibited beyond what the state building code allows.
McCrory has signed several statewide local pre-emption bills into law, even though he urged the legislature to strengthen cities during his 14 years as Charlotte mayor.
As governor, he’s generally criticized legislators for interfering in local affairs when there is no consensus among leaders back home. Not so with Charlotte’s ordinance, which he said crossed the line because of the bathroom provision, the effect it had on city visitors and how other communities could follow Charlotte’s lead.
“The difference is this goes beyond city boundaries,” McCrory told The Associated Press the day after Charlotte passed the ordinance in late February. “This is not a billboard policy. … This is a basic policy of human interaction and privacy.”
McCrory and other Republicans who have intervened in municipal matters have pushed back against what they consider interference by President Barack Obama’s administration in state matters. McCrory and his administration have joined lawsuits seeking to block U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations involving small bodies of water and cutting power plant emissions.
“These are folks that always argue local control is best,” said Democratic Sen. Mike Woodard, a former Durham city council member. “I think it’s hypocritical.”
The state Constitution says it’s the General Assembly’s responsibility to delegate powers and duties to local governments. North Carolina is among 39 states that give state legislatures the authority to decide upon local government structures and functions, according to the National League of Cities.
Cities are taking the mantle of being the “laboratories of innovation” held by the states in the 1990s as populations return to urban centers, said Brooks Rainwater, director of the league’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. So, Rainwater said, states should embrace what’s coming out of cities rather than trying to stop it.
“The government that is closest to the people really reflects the will of the people and should have the ability to govern more,” he said.