CORPUS CHRISTI — As local control battles rage at the Texas Capitol, Gov. Greg Abbott is voicing support for a much more sweeping approach to the issues that have captured headlines.
"As opposed to the state having to take multiple rifle-shot approaches at overriding local regulations, I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says across the board, the state is going to pre-empt local regulations, is a superior approach," Abbott said Tuesday during a Q&A session hosted by the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, an Austin-based think tank.
Such an approach, Abbott added, "makes it more simple, more elegant, but more importantly, provides greater advance notice to businesses and to individuals that you’re going to have the certainty to run your lives."
Abbott made the remarks in response to a moderator's question about legislation this session that would "prohibit any local ordinance from exceeding the standard set by the state."
It wasn't entirely clear which legislation the moderator was referring to, but it could have been House Bill 153 by state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, which prohibits municipalities from imposing occupational licensing requirements that are more stringent than those set by the state.
Local control has been a major flashpoint under the Pink Dome since Abbott took office decrying what he called a "patchwork of local regulations." After the previous session, Abbott signed a bill that pre-empted local efforts to regulate drilling-related activity, a response to the now-repealed Denton fracking ban. This session, state lawmakers are looking for ways to bring back ride-hailing services such as Uber after they left some Texas cities in protest of local regulations.
Critics of such proposals say they amount to hypocrisy by Texas Republicans, who have long railed against what they see as federal government overreach but now want to impose their will on the state's counties, cities and towns. On Tuesday, however, Abbott defended the push as consistent with the U.S. Constitution, which he said "made paramount the role of the individuals."
"Economic freedom in this country rests not with the federal government, not with state government, not with local government," Abbott said. "If you really want to talk about local control, you reduce it to the lowest common denominator and that is the individual. We retain the right as individuals for our own local control, for each of us, to be able to chart our own course, chart our own destiny based upon our own DNA."
Perhaps the most prominent local control issue this session involves "sanctuary" jurisdictions — local government entities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Abbott made it an emergency item earlier this year after Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez announced a new policy in which her department cooperates with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement on a very limited basis. That move led Abbott to withhold some state funding to the county.
While that issue did not come up here Tuesday, Abbott did make clear he believes local governments should shoulder the burden when they go too far in his eyes.
"If cities try to put bans like this in place whether it be on fracking or some other thing, I think cities should have to pay the price for it," Abbott said, wondering aloud whether, for example, Denton would have had to reimburse property owners with mineral rights who lost money under the fracking ban. "If they realize they have to pay the price for it, they realize there’s no way they can pay that bill."
Another major local control issue this session has been the "bathroom bill," which would overturn local ordinances that allow transgender people to use the restroom that matches their gender identity. Abbott has remained largely neutral on the legislation, a priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that passed the Senate last week but now faces an uphill climb in the House.
With the session heating up — this week marks the halfway point — Abbott has mostly stayed out of the fray of the biggest fights thus far, other than to criticize budget writers for snubbing his pre-K initiative. Asked as he left here Tuesday whether he was feeling good about the direction of the session, the governor provided a two-word response: "I am."
Read more on local control:
- At about the same time this week, one set of Texas lawmakers was working on ways to limit the growth of property taxes that fund local governments while another was considering legislation that could cost local governments a lot of money.
- Ranchers, city officials and environmentalists testified on Tuesday against a bill that would prevent cities from banning plastic grocery bags or charging a fee for them.
Disclosure: Uber has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.