Unlikely coalition pushes back against effort to scrap local bans

Fighting Gov. Greg Abbott’s call to overturn local ordinances on plastic-bag bans, tree preservation and fracking, a coalition of unlikely allies is mobilizing to enlist officials from small and large cities across Texas to express their displeasure.

Local Control Texas — composed of Central Texas environmentalists, workers’ rights groups and Republicans from rural areas and small cities — might be the one thing stopping a governor-inspired effort at the Capitol to target some local ordinances.

“Few things are more important in Texas than private property rights,” Abbott said in January, “yet some cities are telling citizens that you don’t own some of the things of your own property that you have bought and purchased and owned for a long time — things like trees.”

At risk, according to the group, are local ordinances governing payday lending, smoking in public spaces, housing rules, plastic bags, distracted driving and tree preservation.

Senate Bill 343, recently filed by state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, declares, “a local government shall not implement an ordinance, rule, or regulation that conflicts with or is more stringent than a state statute.” The similar House Bill 1556 has been filed in the House.

The proposal is “about economic freedom, protecting the property rights of Texans, and removing burdensome regulations that conflict with or undermine state law,” Huffines said. “Local control is not a blank check.”

Other proposals target rules on cutting down trees (House Bill 1442), limiting businesses from handing out single-use plastic and paper bags (HB 1939) and restricting hydraulic fracturing (SB 440), a method of oil and gas extraction.

Already, Local Control Texas has had some success, getting out-of-the-way towns like Montgomery — 50 miles north of Houston — to pass or consider resolutions that call some of the proposed legislation an overreach. The effort seeks to broaden opposition beyond major cities like Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, which have passed some of the local ordinances Abbott wants to pull back.

“What looks weird to some looks like home to others who create software and startups and street art,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler told the American-Statesman in January as he sought to defend the local rules following Abbott’s swipe.

“We ask that you refrain from hindering local governments’ abilities to serve the interests of their residents,” the group’s founders have written in an open letter to state leaders and lawmakers that is posted on the group’s website, localcontroltexas.org.

The signees of that letter include Darren Hodges, Fort Stockton’s Mayor Pro Tem who also identifies himself as a tea partier; Lanham Lyne, a former Republican state representative and mayor from Wichita Falls who runs an oil and gas exploration business; the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance; the Workers Defense Project; and the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

“Austin is a bit hypocritical, complaining to Washington, D.C., and then going around and telling local communities what to do,” Hodges, who has championed a plastic-bag ban in Fort Stockton, told the American-Statesman.

Karen Darcy, a member of the North Shore Republican Women, which meets by Lake Conroe, north of Houston, says she’s called her state representative and state senator — both Republicans — to ask them to fight proposals that threaten local control.

“If the majority at a local level have a problem with something, it’s up to that jurisdiction to decide what’s best for its citizens,” she said.

First-term state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, who has authored a bill that would overturn local ordinances like Austin’s that aim to limit plastic bags, conceded that “local control is a very important public policy consideration.”

But, he added: “Another important public policy consideration is individual liberty. Individual liberty trumps local control. There’s the right of businesses to offer products for sale that doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.”

Last session, a similar effort to overturn bag bans failed to make it to the House floor for a vote. But Rinaldi said this time would be different because of Abbott’s support.

The governor “has made it a priority to address piecemeal regulations by cities that are effectively turning Texas into California at the local level,” Rinaldi said.

But Hodges waved off Rinaldi’s logic: “Where he misses the boat is that things happen locally; that’s where people live and where things are done.”

“There’s more pressure on local officials to be in tune with the public,” Hodges continued. “The further you get from local, the easier it is to stay in office and ignore what people really want. Politicians (at the Capitol) are sometimes insulated from it.”

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