Three Local Authority Trends and Insights


  • Julia Bauer
  • Patrick Rochford
July 11, 2024 - (4 min read)

Co-authored by Chukwudi Ukonne, Graduate Research Intern, Center for Research and Data Analysis, National League of Cities

For years, the National League of Cities (NLC) has been an advocate for local authority because of its impact on localities’ ability to respond to resident needs. In recent years, NLC has worked to track and research local authority trends such as preemption and provide resources for localities and states on this topic. A recent NLC publication, The Local Authority Landscape: Trends in Select Issues from 2019-2022 brief, dives into these trends with further analysis of how issue areas changed in a three-year period.

In partnership with NLC, the Center for Public Health Law Research (CPHLR) at Temple University Beasley School of Law gathers legal data on 15 policies spanning six themes. Using the following six themes, NLC conducted an analysis of local authority data from 2019 to 2022:

  • Civil Rights and Education
  • Housing
  • Infrastructure
  • Public Safety and Policing
  • Tax, Budgeting and Finance
  • Workforce
Across these themes, three key insights were uncovered:

1. Policy Area Variation

About half of the policy areas saw no change in preemptions, indicating stagnant preemption levels in those domains. Additionally, in two policy areas—property tax and expenditure limits (TELs) and municipal broadband—the number of states preempting decreased. New laws implemented in other domains not tracked in the CPHLR dataset could still have similar impacts on local authorities like the property TELs.

However, preemption did increase in five policy areas tracked, with expansion concentrated in a select few areas. Specifically, transgender rights and school curriculum on race and racism accounted for 80% of new preemptions. Nonetheless, leaders should be conscious of potential preemptions in areas not tracked by CPHLR.

2. New Sectors in Preemption

Since 2019, about half of states have preempted at least one new policy area tracked. These states were often those in the higher preemption quartiles, indicating that new activity is concentrated in states with a historical precedent for such actions.

Figure: State action ranged from preemption of three new areas to repeal of preemption in one area

change in number of policy areas preempted by state between 2019-2022
Source: Data is sourced from the Center for Public Health Law Research’s State Preemption Laws dataset:

3. Geographical Variations

There is a notable geographical bent in preemption rates, with southern states featuring prominently in the highest quartile of preemptions. Arizona and Tennessee lead in the number of policy areas preempted, while Connecticut and Vermont show minimal preemption activity in the areas tracked by CPHLR. The range between quartiles also demonstrates a widening difference between high-preemption and low-preemption states.

Looking Ahead

As America’s local authority landscape continues to evolve, it is important for local leaders to stay informed on and understand trends in key issue areas. NLC and CPHLR remain committed to providing local leaders with the resources that they need to respond to residents’ needs

The Local Authority Landscape: Trends in Select Issues from 2019-2022 brief adds further context to the trends detailed above. For more resources, see NLC’s Empowering Local Authority initiative page.

Here are a few terms to help you understand the local authority landscape:
  • Local authority is the ability of municipalities to self-govern.
  • Preemption occurs when a higher level of government supersedes the authority of lower levels of government. Through inefficient state interference, municipalities have experienced limits to their authority that can constrain local innovation and efforts to make communities stronger, safer and fairer.
  • Home rule reform provides the legal basis for local decision-making and can set limits on state interference. Home rule allows for important issues to be handled at the closest level of government to the people. Currently, access to home rule differs across and within states throughout the US, leaving municipalities with varying degrees of local authority. Opportunities for home rule reform differ between states but may occur through ballot initiatives, constitutional amendments, or statutory change.

Learn More

For more resources on issues of local authority and preemption, see NLC’s Empowering Local Authority initiative page.

About the Authors

Julia Bauer

About the Authors

Julia Bauer is the Program Manager at the Center for Research and Data Analysis at the National League of Cities.

Patrick Rochford

Patrick Rochford is the research specialist in the Center for Research and Data Analysis at the National League of Cities.