Abbott’s target on individuality of cities is anti-Texan

  • Editorial Board
  • Special to the American-Statesman
June 09, 2017
Tamir Kalifa
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott describes the items he wants addressed by a special legislative session during a news conference at the Capitol on June 6. TAMIR KALIFA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Here we go again. The Texas Legislature’s assault on cities is headed for another round.

With a few choice words last week, Gov. Greg Abbott summoned legislators back for another session in July, taking aim at local control and delivering another political punch at the very entities that greatly contribute to the economic success of Texas — its large cities.

“I’m calling for legislation that reduces, restricts and prohibits local regulation,” Abbott said, calling legislators back to Austin for a monthlong session beginning July 18.

It’s a real shame. While Abbott and some conservative Republicans talk a lot about federal government overreach, the special session agenda is nothing more than big government at play, and it goes against the very spirit that defines Texas — individuality.

Abbott set 20 conservative agenda priorities he’d like to see legislators get done; almost half would alter local government measures that he and some Republican lawmakers consider overreach, including overturning tree protections, hand-held phone restrictions and transgender-friendly bathroom policies and limiting municipal annexation.

Abbott had little choice but to bring lawmakers back. During the regular session, the House and Senate failed to pass the “sunset safety net bill,” required to renew five state regulatory agencies, including the Texas Department of Transportation and the doctor-licensing Texas Medical Board.

The fight over local control isn’t new in the Texas Legislature, but Abbott’s special session priorities send a divisive message that the ordinances and regulations set by urban cities like Austin — which are increasingly diverse and liberal — are what’s wrong with Texas.

Abbott says that broad-based laws, rather than a patchwork of local regulations, are a “more simple, more elegant” way to run Texans’ lives.

Simple and elegant is not the Texas way. To do as Abbott suggests undermines the intent behind Texas’ Constitutional Home Rule Amendment, which allows cities to govern themselves by rules their citizens set.

We remind Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and some other Republican lawmakers that while cities are an extension of the state, those that sought and received home rule charters as permitted by the Texas Constitution did so for the autonomy necessary to better address their growth. Home rule allows the values held dearest by the citizens of a municipality — like preserving an area’s natural beauty and wildlife — to be reflected in how the city is governed. Home rule differentiates one city from the next.

Austin is Austin — just as Houston is Houston and San Angelo is San Angelo — because of the values citizens bring to their local governments. What Austin decides for its residents, for example, doesn’t apply to the good folks in San Angelo or any other municipality. It is an individuality that has defined the Texas spirit for over 100 years.

Abbott and like-minded lawmakers contend that regulations like those created by the city of Austin stifle the economy and interfere with job creation.

We disagree. And so do the numbers.

As we’ve said before, urban cities are economic generators for Texas, and cities like Austin are meccas of innovation and imagination. Here, as Mayor Steve Adler said after Abbott’s special session announcement, Austinites enjoy “an unemployment rate that is a point lower than the state, a lower violent crime rate than the state, and the highest rates of patents and venture capital in the state.

Case in point: Austin’s 3.2 percent unemployment rate is among the lowest in Texas. The state unemployment rate was 5 percent, according to March statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A more productive use of the special session would be for lawmakers to address issues that truly hurt job creation and the economy, such as school finance reform.

Good public schools grow educated workforces that attract businesses and create jobs. But the current public school funding system doesn’t work and instead creates a great burden for Texans in high property taxes. If lawmakers really want to address the property tax crisis facing the state, they need to take more responsibility for public school funding.

Currently, local school boards use property taxes as a funding tool because the Legislature has steadily decreased its financial support for public education.

Ten years ago, the state and local school districts paid an equal 45 percent of the cost, while the federal government paid the rest. Today, the federal government’s portion remains the same, while the state now provides only 38 percent, leaving local districts to bear more than half the cost.

If lawmakers would contribute once again an equal share for the cost of public education, local school districts could lower property taxes. The savings would give Texans more money to spend and contribute to the economy. It would serve as a much better solution to property tax reform.

That would be best for Texas — not an all-out attack on local governments.

All across this great state, citizens are proud of the cities they live in. With a simple vote, citizens can ensure that the lawmakers who gather under the pink dome on Congress Avenue are those who respect how citizens choose to govern themselves. Remind them of your power.