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Analysis: In Texas, You Can Fight City Hall

The Texas Legislature has become the court of last resort for companies and industries fighting local regulations in the state's cities and counties. And for those interests, Austin can be a very favorable venue for appeals.

A gas well is shown in 2014 sitting less than 400 feet from a home in Denton.

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“Local” might be the byword for fancy farm-to-market restaurants, but it can be a dirty word at the Texas Capitol.

The state Legislature has become the appeals court for the state’s local governments. Companies and industries snubbed by local laws are increasingly asking state lawmakers to turn things their way — and it’s working.

In 2015, the Legislature overrode a Denton law banning hydraulic fracturing — fracking — within the city limits. Denton voters put the ban in place, but the industry cried foul. Wells were in place before the houses of the not-in-my-backyard homeowners were even built, industry representatives argued, and their property rights were at stake. They also argued — you’ll hear a version of this phrase in almost all of the local-vs-state skirmishes — that overarching state laws are more desirable that “a patchwork of local regulations.”

A herd of cities lined up against that one, but oil and gas won the day: The repeal of the fracking ban passed the House 125-20 and the Senate 24-7. The governor signed it.

Industry is not always opposed to local regulation. It’s still legal to smoke in public places in several Texas cities and towns. Many groups — health associations and others — have lobbied hard, but the absence of an uproar from businesses seems to have made a difference.

The same is true for a statewide ban on texting while driving. The House sponsor is a powerful one — former Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland. Sure enough, the bill was approved by the House 104-39 three months before the end of the 2015 legislative session. But the session ended without a floor vote in the Texas Senate.

Several of the mobile phone industry’s big players have run expensive public service campaigns against texting while driving, and they have even testified in favor of the legislation. But they didn’t bring the heat the energy folks brought to that fracking measure.

The next tests will start when the Legislature meets for its next regular session in January. This time, one big fight involves local regulation of drivers for ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber. Another is a straight-up attempt by the state to limit local officials’ ability to raise taxes without voter approval.

The ride-hailing issue sets up like the fracking issue did. Austin voters were asked whether the ride-hailing drivers should pass security checks, like cab drivers do. Uber and Lyft said they would leave if voters approved the regulations, irking voters with their methods and the explicit threat. Voters backed the regulations. The companies left. They threatened to leave Houston, too, over regulations there.

Industry allies in the Legislature have promised to file a statewide ride-hailing law that doesn’t hobble the companies.

State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, has been openly critical of the Austin regulations. He was on a panel on the subject at last weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival, and boiled his objections down to a couple of tweets after it was over. “Local control is great, but it's not a blank check to violate economic or personal liberty,” he said in one. “I'm for personal responsibility, and I trust Texans to make good decisions in the absence of heavy-handed government regulations,” he tweeted a few minutes later.

The property tax proposals are the latest attempts by state officials to control local property tax increases. The state doesn’t have a property tax itself — that’s unconstitutional — but cities, counties and school districts are state inventions and are subject to state regulation and some control. And in this case, some state officials want to give voters more control over property tax increases.

That’s not how the local governments see it, however. They believe, with some evidence, that state officials just want to make it harder to raise the money they contend they need to do what their voters demand of them. Some take it further, saying the need for more tax money is driven, in part, by what the state requires local governments to do.

You might argue that the property tax debate is a case of checks and balances, of one set of elected officials keeping another set of elected officials in line. You might even be right.

Other cases — fracking, smoking, texting while driving, hailing rides, banning plastic supermarket bags among them — are efforts to replace local laws with state ones.

State officials are sensitive to local control. City officials are sensitive to being overruled. One person who has held both jobs — Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who served in the House for 27 years — told a roomful of people at TribFest that the governments should work together, like parents disciplining their children.

“We need transportation options, and they do include Uber,” Turner said. “I want them to stay in the City of Houston. I love them.

“But you know, if the state of Texas, the Legislature, says to Uber, ‘Follow the rules of the localities,’ we wouldn’t have a problem. One of the reasons we have a problem — it’s like children going from the mother to the dad. Mom says no. They go to the dad. And in this case, if they can go from Houston and go to Austin to the Legislature, then it makes it very difficult to parent that individual.”

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • Voters in the state's largest school district can say no to sending money to other school districts, putting Texas lawmakers in a bind and — maybe — raising their own school taxes in the process.
  • The late Donald Trump endorsement by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — considered before that actually took place — will require some difficult political acrobatics, both now and after the November election.
  • Tom “Smitty” Smith, a colorful lobbyist and liberal activist who turned Public Citizen Texas into a strong voice on environmental, utility, consumer and ethics issues, is hanging up his spurs after 31 years.

Disclosure: Uber and Lyft have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

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