With recent news of President Donald Trump’s retreat on the landmark Paris climate agreement and the U.S. Justice Department teaming up with the state of Texas to force Austin and Travis County to obey Senate Bill 4 — which local law enforcement says would make Austin less safe — there is good reason to fret.
That is especially true, given that Gov. Greg Abbott has called a special session July 18 that aims to further coerce Austin and other Texas cities to walk lockstep with a hard-core conservative ideology regarding LGBTQ matters and abandon local authority in setting tax rates for cities and counties. Those policy areas are best decided by local communities.
With so many dark clouds gathering over Texas, the state seems to be in the path of a hurricane.
There are silver linings, however, and there always will be when local communities take action — as Austin, Travis County and Central Texas are doing.
On the national front, the United States Conference of Mayors –which includes Austin Mayor Steve Adler – took action by announcing cities would fill a void left by Trump, who abandoned the Paris agreement in which a global coalition of nations pledged to curb emissions that cause climate change.
“Austin will not stop fighting climate change,” Adler said this week. “Worldwide, cities will lead in achieving climate treaty goals because so much of what’s required happens at the local level. Regardless of what happens around us, we’re still Austin, Texas.”
Well said, mayor.
Adler is one of 343 U.S. mayors representing 65 million Americans who pledged to uphold the goals in the Paris agreement brokered by President Barack Obama. Under the agreement, the U.S. would seek to reduce emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025. All but a handful of nations joined the Paris accord. Trump, as he unwisely promised on the campaign trail, dumped the agreement.
Locally, Austin’s commitment to clean air also is seen in its self-determined climate goals that Adler and the City Council are overseeing, such as carbon neutrality for the city’s operations by 2020 and net-zero communitywide greenhouse gases by 2050. Those are local values Austin residents have embraced.
It is unfortunate that Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick want to take an ax to local authority across the state.
Abbott calls that “freedom.” It’s very curious, as that approach requires cities and counties to abandon their independence — as well as the self-governing principles that have helped build the economic and cultural structures that make Texas the envy of many other states. In truth, that approach sounds more like servitude than freedom.
Patrick again is pushing for approval of Senate Bill 2, which would require cities and counties to get voter approval for tax increases of 5 percent or more. Currently, a tax ratification election only takes place if local governments raise taxes 8 percent or more — and if taxpayers petition to force the election. Though that version of the measure failed to pass muster of the Republican-controlled House, it is back on the agenda.
The measure understandably has run into bipartisan opposition because it would hinder local governments’ ability to fund public services while doing little to cut property taxes. Consider that SB 2 does not apply to property taxes levied by school districts — the largest most burdensome tax on homeowners’ backs.
SB 2 would not work well in Williamson County, according to county Tax Assessor-Collector Larry Gaddes. He said the measure could result in his county receiving $75 million less in taxes over the next five years while saving the average county homeowner just $9 in property taxes.
Also on the special session hit list is local tree ordinances. Roughly 50 Texas cities have tree-protection ordinances, including Round Rock, Pflugerville, Lakeway, West Lake Hills and other Central Texas cities. Like Austin’s tree ordinance, many define protected trees and require permits or another process before removing them.
Area officials are confused about why the state would mess with local tree ordinances aimed at beautifying cities and keeping parks and other public places cooler in Texas’ triple digit summers. Round Rock’s forestry manager Emsud Horozovic said that city’s tree ordinance has never been controversial.
“(The city) should be able to make a decision on how our town looks. We don’t want everything to be just concrete and sidewalks,” Horozovic said.
He is right.
Abbott’s special session also will attempt to crack down on transgender-friendly bathroom policies with a measure mandating that people use public bathrooms based on the gender listed on their birth certificates. Bathrooms should not be the state’s business.
Unfortunately, the Legislature through its new law targeting so-called sanctuary cities is trying to use local officers to do the job of federal immigration agents. Along with some other Texas cities, Austin is suing the state, saying the law is unconstitutional.
The current system that empowers local communities to decide such issues has worked remarkably well. It makes no sense to craft a remedy for something that isn’t broken. Instead, Abbott’s and Patrick’s one-size-fits-all measures are likely to erode the state’s tourism and convention business.
With so much on the line, it’s more important than ever to let elected lawmakers know they work for us — and not the other way around.