Lawmakers debate when to honor — and when to override — local regulations


As the Legislature considers texting, ride-hailing and other issues, the question is, who gets to decide?

Democrats in recent sessions have tended to favor local control, with Republicans looking statewide.

Local control, as any locally elected Texas lawmaker will tell you, is better than the Capitol pulling the strings. Government closer to the people surely must be better than a government farther from the people. Especially that faraway federal district squeezed in between Virginia and Maryland.

Except when it isn’t, when a wise, liberty-loving Legislature has no choice but to rein in out-of-control local controllers.

A panel of Austin lawmakers, appearing before a Real Estate Council of Austin gathering Tuesday, kicked around that and other legislative quandaries as the 85th Legislature prepares to shake off its January doldrums and begin the session in earnest.

“It’s going to be challenging for me and for some others to overturn something approved by Austin voters,” said state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, a Democrat who represents the southeastern quadrant of Travis County. Rodriguez was referring to Austin’s ordinance regulating ride-hailing company operations, which in May survived an attempt by Uber and Lyft to replace it with another ordinance more to their liking.

With that avenue closed, the companies are pushing statewide legislation to eliminate the “patchwork” of local ride-hailing laws, or more specifically, the ones in Austin, Houston and a few other places that trouble them. The support for this bill, it appears, will likely be mostly Republican in character, the opposition mostly Democratic.

But when it comes to clamping down on the use of cellphones while driving — so-called texting legislation — that sorting of team members breaks down. Democrats, joined by quite a few Republicans, want to take this sort of regulation statewide. But a faction of Republicans in the Texas Senate (and at an earlier point in history, then-Gov. Rick Perry) reject that statewide approach. If localities want to ban texting while driving, well, OK, they say, but keep the state of Texas out of it.

“We cannot seem to pass a statewide ban on texting,” said state Rep. Celia Israel, D-North Austin, who also represents most of Pflugerville. “I don’t understand that. It’s very disappointing.”

State Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, in the past has supported the texting ban, which has been passed by the House three times but run into a Perry’s veto in 2011 and then failed to muster enough votes in the Senate in 2013 and 2015. Texas Republicans lately, on a number of issues, seem to be leaning more toward statewide control.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, are pushing for legislation requiring that people use public restrooms corresponding to their gender at birth rather than the gender they now identify with. This would target, in particular, a Fort Worth school district’s policy.

Texas Republicans in 2015 overturned a Denton ban on oil and gas fracking within its city limits, and imposed requirements on public universities regarding the carrying of handguns on campus. And there is momentum to have statewide intervention on the decision of some local governments, including Austin and Travis County, to have their police and sheriffs refrain from reporting undocumented immigrants to federal authorities.

“Sometimes the state has an obligation to step in,” said Workman, who doesn’t necessarily agree with each of the statewide overrides now on the legislative agenda.

In what circumstances should the Legislature step in? Workman said it could be when local ordinances materially hurt commerce, when a service (such as ride-hailing) crosses jurisdictional lines between cities, or when a local law impinges on personal liberty or property rights.

Democrats, who have taken on the local control mantle more lately, tend more toward the statewide view when the civil rights of minorities or other disadvantaged people are at stake. The local control argument, in other words, has a situational quality to it.

“It’s not consistent,” Rodriguez said.

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