The American Beverage Association, the powerful trade association representing PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and other sugar-sweetened-beverage companies, took California’s state legislature hostage this summer.
It proffered a devil’s bargain to lawmakers: The trade association would drop its plans to put a measure on the state’s November ballot designed to seriously weaken the ability of communities to raise revenue, in exchange for a ban until 2030 on new local taxes on sweetened beverages. California caved.
This cynical soda-tax deal is a stark example of corporate-backed pre-emption laws — that is, state laws that bar local governments from addressing local problems. Such legislation threatens local revenue for police, fire services, parks, libraries, roads, bridges and any other essential municipal services.
This isn’t business as usual. This isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue. This isn’t rural lawmakers reining in their urban colleagues. This is a new breed of naked corporatism — and it is being replicated in statehouses across the country to interfere with local policies on economic development, public health, gun safety, discrimination and environmental issues.
States have long taken a role in local government. But what has changed since 2011, as Columbia University governance expert Richard Briffault explained, is the intentional, extensive and punitive nature of pre-emptive laws. This trend, too often, is propelled by trade-association and business lobbying.
Some of these efforts have provoked intense national debate, such as North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” that targeted transgender people. But most of these laws are designed, in the words of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, R, “to reduce, restrict and prohibit local regulations” of industry — and they pass quietly.
Local governments across the country have steadily lost power every legislative session over the past several years, with no sign of letting up. Mayors, city council members and county commissioners have been stripped of tools they once used to keep residents safe, pursue racial and economic equity, ensure livable wages, ban discrimination in housing and the workplace, and safeguard fair elections. All of these are now in question.
National and local business associations have lobbied states to prohibit local minimum-wage increases, and 25 states have done so. Restaurant interests have pressured states to block local workers from earning paid sick days, and 22 states have done so. And in 43 states, legislatures have done the bidding of gun lobbyists to ban local efforts to address gun violence.
The fast-moving technology sector is especially vulnerable to pre-emption. Uber and Lyft, which employ more lobbyists than Amazon, Microsoft and Walmart combined, have successfully pre-empted local regulation of ride-sharing in more than 40 states. Meanwhile, AT&T and Verizon have used the same tactics to end, in 20 states and counting, local ordinances regulating next-generation 5G wireless technology, which relies on publicly owned utility poles to work.
Now, the American Beverage Association and soft-drink manufacturers have another notch in their belts, with new soda taxes banned in California, Michigan and Arizona- even as Harvard’s School of Public Health warns that consumption of their products is a major contributor to the obesity epidemic, a public-health emergency.
For our government to work and to succeed, we need all three levels functioning effectively — federal, state and local. We need to assess the damage that is being done to our democracy when corporations are the primary authors of our public policy.
Local governments have long functioned as our “schools of democracy,” where Americans learn to participate, take charge of their own affairs and expect accountability from public officials. Now, local officials are chilled from proposing or voting for policies that reflect the views and values of the communities they serve, lest they cross corporate interests.
We can fix this. It is time for communities to stand up, demand an end to state interference in local decision-making and insist that our government puts people before profits.
Kim Haddow is director of the Local Solutions Support Center, a project of the Rockefeller Family Fund, and a national hub that works to counter pre-emption efforts. Haddow wrote this for The Washington Post.