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Analysis: A week to test local powers in Texas

The Texas Legislature is going to be busy this week with issues that ordinarily belong to other governments, as it considers the wisdom of local ordinances on restrooms, ride-hailing, short-term rentals, sanctuary cities and plastic bags.

A large crowd of transgender advocates opposed to SB 6 the bathroom bill converge on the Capitol Extension Rotunda during the Senate State Affairs Committee hearing on the bill March 7, 2017.

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Former Gov. Rick Perry loved to talk about states as “the laboratories of democracy” — the place where ideas for the federal government should come from.

States are receivers as well as senders in this game; some of the best new ideas for zoning and urban planning, health care, criminal justice, transportation and education start with local experiments that become state and even national policy.

The laboratories can be slow. Smoking bans in public places and prohibitions on texting while driving are examples of local measures that haven’t been adopted by the state, though both are under consideration again this year. In the meantime, you can still light up in a restaurant or office in many places in Texas, or try to check your email and stay in your lane while zipping down Interstate 10 at 80 miles an hour.

Even breaking the law can have local variations. Possession of a small amount of marijuana in some counties will get you a free ride to jail in the back of a police car; in others, it’ll get you a citation and an order to appear in court on a specified date.

But when somebody doesn’t like a local idea, the state government is where they file their appeal. And this week, that appellate process will be in full bloom.

The Texas Senate will be voting on the “bathroom bill.” Much attention has been focused on that legislation’s requirement that your choice of restrooms in publicly owned buildings in Texas should  match the gender listed on your birth certificate. Local control is at the edge of that spotlight; the legislation would also upend local anti-discrimination measures that allow transgender Texans to use the restrooms that match their gender identities.

A Senate committee is set to talk about limits on how big property taxes can rise in cities, counties, school districts and other local governments without voter approval. The proposal — loudly protested by those local governments but also offered as a balm to voters who really, really don’t like property taxes — would push any tax increase of four percent or more to the voters.

The local governments contend voters might reflexively reject tax increases — even for services and programs they have requested. The sponsors of the limits (and there is related legislation working in the Texas House) say taxes can go up as much as voters will allow and suggest the locals do a better job of explaining why they need the money.

The locals — particularly school districts — make a pretty good case that much of the increases in local taxes are to make up for declining per-student state spending on public education. Counties point to unfunded mandates from the state, suggesting their increases are driving by state rules for county criminal justice and other programs.

Bag bans are on the Legislature’s agenda this week — there’s an effort to undo local bans on the plastic bags that are familiar both to shoppers and to the people who clean up urban litter.

Ride-hailing regulations are on the agenda, in response to local laws in Austin and elsewhere that require drivers for those companies to pass the same background checks required of licensed cab drivers.

Short-term rentals are on the agenda, as the Legislature wades into local battles between people who want the freedom to rent out their homes and properties on a short-term basis and neighbors who want to control that sometimes noisy form of tourism.

Anti-“sanctuary” cities bills will get their first House committee hearings in the rolling argument between cities that want their police and jails to fully enforce federal immigration laws and those that want local law enforcement to leave immigration law to the feds and to concentrate on local crime. Both types of cities, by the way, would like to put in a word for state funding to help with the added load; that’s another on the list of potential unfunded mandates from Austin.

The laboratory Perry talked about is busy.

Someone pointed out that last week’s Senate State Affairs Committee hearing on the bathroom bill drew a huge crowd of citizens representing just about every imaginable gender description and identity. Since the proceedings lasted for the better part of 24 hours, most of those citizens probably used one of the restrooms at the Texas Capitol at least once. Some of them might have slipped outside for a cigarette.

None of them were breaking any rules.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • Local governments and school districts battling the Texas Legislature over property taxes have a couple of things in common: They want local control over taxes and a more reliable partner in the state government.
  • A small group of Texas Republican officeholders in the Legislature and Congress have something new to worry about in the Donald Trump era: They won their November elections, but Hillary Clinton beat Trump in their districts.

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Politics Public education State government 85th Legislative Session Bathroom bill Texas Legislature