Wear: Abbott’s cellphone law uniformity call really about who gets to decide


Highlights

Gov. Abbott last week struck a familiar theme, decrying a “patchwork” of phoning-while-driving laws.

But Abbott’s call to lawmakers would have the effect of loosening laws on use of phones behind the wheel.

Democrats and Republicans have each supported, and overridden, local and state control over the years.

It’s not the patchwork. It’s the policy, stupid.

And lest anyone think I’m calling Gov. Greg Abbott stupid, given his recent fondness for decrying the “patchwork” of local laws allegedly plaguing our great state, I am not.

The governor, a former Texas Supreme Court justice and attorney general, is no fool. But neither, one has to hope, are the voters.

Abbott, in justifying his Memorial Day signing of the Uber/Lyft Protection Act — I’m sorry, House Bill 100 — cited the patchwork of differing local ordinances regulating ride-hailing services. Time, he said, to end that freedom-stanching and economically counterproductive nonsense and have a single state law for Uber and Lyft (and any other ride-hailing company that manages to survive).

Last week, when he included in a long wish list for the July 18 special session a proposal to override local ordinances on cellphone use while driving, the governor likewise referred to, yes, a patchwork of local laws.

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On that and other aspects of local law that the governor rapped — among them, ordinances protecting trees such as the one Austin has — his opponents immediately bemoaned his disregard for “local control.” They brandished the old “governance by those closest to the people is best” trope.

But let’s cut away the rhetorical brush here. Both sides simply want what they want policywise, and the arguments about patches and local controllers are really just handy talking points. At any given time over the years, both Democrats and Republicans have argued strenuously for both local control and for overriding such control from above.

The ultimate success of the civil rights movement, for instance, depended on an active federal government and the federal court system to overcome state and local Jim Crow laws. Abortion rights supporters looked to the U.S. Supreme Court to override restrictive state laws, which it did in 1973. Now, abortion opponents are looking the same direction in hopes of reversing all or part of that.

And one presumes that Abbott, who as state attorney general used to brag that he would wake up in the morning and sue the Obama administration, surely wouldn’t prefer to end the patchwork of state laws and have all statutes originate in Congress. Even one currently controlled by his own party.

Back to transportation.

If Abbott simply wanted to eliminate the mix on phoning-while-driving laws in the state, he could have called for the special session to consider a statewide law comparable to that in Austin and at least 43 other Texas cities that ban virtually all use of a hand-held phones behind the wheel. But he didn’t. Instead, in his speech Wednesday, Abbott called for overriding local laws and leaving only House Bill 62 in place.

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That legislation, now a law, bans only the reading, writing and sending of electronic messages by the driver of a moving car, and it has exceptions for texting or emailing during an emergency or to report crime, as well as exceptions for global positioning systems and music apps. Talking on a hand-held phone isn’t mentioned or prohibited.

In other words, Abbott wants to limit restrictions on cellphone use. More specifically, his proposal to eliminate the cellphone laws in Austin, San Marcos, Buda, Kyle, San Antonio, El Paso and, of all places, College Station would mean that a few million Texans would once again legally be able to hold a phone to their ear with one hand and steer a car with the other one.

Wednesday must have been something of a whiplash for those who pushed for HB 62, which the governor signed into law earlier that day. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, had been pushing for some sort of ban on cellphone use while driving since the 2009 session, and Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, joined her in the effort in 2011. So getting it passed this session was a huge victory for both of them, their staff members and a highly motivated community of “cell survivors,” that being family members of people killed or badly injured in automobile accidents caused by phone use.

And it was no cinch that Abbott would sign it, especially after he seemed to delay doing so. So, the HB 62 team had the joy of finding out it had become law, only to hear a few hours later that the bill might become the basis of allowing more cell use behind the wheel. Literally, good news, bad news, from their point of view.

So, what now with Abbott’s proposal, which is only one of 19 policy proposals that the governor put on what will be a very crowded special session agenda?

Several members of the House “freedom caucus” made a run during the session at doing exactly what the governor is suggesting. When HB 62 was up for debate March 15 on the House floor, Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, and five members proposed an amendment saying that “a local authority may not regulate or prohibit the use of a wireless communication device while operating a motor vehicle.”

The House rejected such a statewide pre-emption on an 80-67 vote. A relatively narrow escape for local control, or endorsement of patchwork quilts if you will. Hard to say what might happen if it reaches the House floor in a special session, especially given the unknown interplay with all the other bills that will be swirling around in those 30 dog days this summer.

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The local control question is particularly pertinent at this moment.

Republicans, aside from having the presidency and majorities in both chambers of Congress, control 33 governorships and 32 state legislatures. Democrats, though, are dominant at the local level around the country and seemingly eager to flex their municipal muscles. Austin Mayor Steve Adler was among almost 300 mayors who signed a letter condemning President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris environmental accord and pledging to work for its provisions within their city limits.

Abbott’s aggressive move on Austin and other Texas cities last week comes in the wake of that broadside. In a partisan battle where one side controls state law and the other local laws — and state statutes can overrule local ordinances — this sort of power play could become more common.

You know that Austin ordinance banning smoking in bars and other public spaces? Might be time to invest in nose plugs.



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