There are many ways to critique the budget plan outlined by Mick Mulvaney and the Trump administration last week. Priorities skew toward a bloated military and away from aid to poor people. Budget cuts seem aimed more at symbolic targets of longstanding conservative ire (PBS, the remaining non-abortion services Planned Parenthood can offer women on Medicaid, the respective National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities). But it’s also a budget that takes dead aim at cities and at local governments more generally. As Will Wilkinson writes in the Washington Post, this is partly an electoral ploy, as Trump does not see his support coming from big, diverse, coastal cities. However, not all cities are large, or diverse, or coastal, and the anti-urbanist rhetoric that Trump has favored on Twitter encourages many of Trump’s rust belt constituents to embrace a mental map of “urban” defined by large cities with significant minority, poor, and immigrant populations. Wilkinson notes aptly that Trump speaks of cities through
a fearsome caricature that bears little resemblance to the real urban landscape,
which perhaps makes it easier to imagine that cuts to social programs are aimed elsewhere (though, in reality, communities that went strongly for Trump in November stand to suffer greatly under his budget).
I wrote weeks ago about the nomination of Dr. Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Although Carson distinguished himself by appearing to discount the efficacy of HUD’s potential actions to alleviate poverty as a complex social problem, the bigger structural problem for the agency is that its very existence is politically imperiled. The budget plan proposes to knock $6 billion off the agency’s funding and eliminate Community Development Block Grants.
Mass transit funding support from the feds also faces severe cuts, at a time when mobility issues for people unable to drive cars constitute a major obstacle to economic security and mobility (both in metro and rural areas). But support for roads and highways will remain unchanged. Support for local law enforcement and anti-terrorism efforts figure to devolve to state and local governments too.
The administration offers a nominally principled defense of this action, stating
“State and local governments are better positioned to serve their communities based on local needs and priorities”[.]
However, this presumes a cooperative effort by states to work with urban governments to solve important problems. Very often, as Michael Wallace writes for the National League of Cities blog, cities have state governments holding one hand behind their back while federal cuts hold the other.
Taxing and revenue limits are part of the problem, but recent reports by the NLC also show an issue that I’ve devoted some attention to, preemption of local governments by state legislatures, is an increasing problem. The long and short of preemption is that at a time when local governments (representing large cities, small towns, and communities of all kinds in between) find themselves the only representative of people’s needs for housing, education, livelihood, and mobility, they’re alone in working to meet those needs.
I’m working up a longer essay on this urban moment, considering how cities fit ideologically and pragmatically in various forms of “resistance” to Trump’s brand of right-wing authoritarian populism and the Republican Party’s standard austerity. For now, I’d urge everyone to look closely at the NLC’s report “City Rights in an Era of Preemption” for a sense of how much state governments are working to restrict independent and flexible municipal policy in a host of areas, which may reflect special industry interests or broader culture war politics. To summarize, half of US states preempt local minimum wage laws, 19 preempt local paid leave laws, 17 prevent localities from establishing public broadband networks, and 42 limit local taxing and budget autonomy, a situation that NCL executive Brooks Rainwater argues
prevents cities from expanding rights, building stronger economies and promoting innovation can be counterproductive and even dangerous. When decision-making is divorced from the core wants and needs of community members, it creates a perilous environment.
If anything, the NLC report understates the problem, as it focuses on economic and social policy, exemplified by minimum wage and antidiscrimination ordinances, major areas of city-state conflict, although in many states local environmental protections have been preempted, which is increasingly important as the federal Environmental Protection Agency budget is slated for severe cuts and that agency’s head is a former state attorney general and fierce advocate of federalism (in practice, the voluntary compliance of industry with regulations the industries write) in environmental regulation. Without strong assistance from the Federal government, cities may be on their own against industry-friendly state houses in protecting air, soil, and drinking water. Preemption threatens what little individual cities may accomplish against problems of pollution that disregard local boundaries.
The NLC’s report also provides a concise summary of the legal and historical basis for restrictions on city autonomy. If that whets your appetite, you could read my award-winning article “Uniting Citizens after Citizens United” in American Studies, where I discuss the ways that recognizing the power of cities to act on behalf of their inhabitants may promote more inclusive, participatory, and democratic politics in an age where national and state politics are conducted through the exchange of money.