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Analysis: One (Texas) official to rule them all

If you got the states together to take power away from the federal government, as Greg Abbott hopes to do, and if you increased the state's powers over laws passed by cities and counties and local voters, the most powerful office in the state capital would really be something.

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks to the House on the opening Day of the 85th legislative session, Jan. 10, 2017.

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In the old days — we're talking way back, in the pre-2015 era — every mayor in the United States of America wanted to be governor and then president and then the face on a nickel or a dime or a two-dollar bill.

Maybe the office of governor should be the end game for every lowly politician who looks at the mirror in the morning and sees a superstar smiling back. Greg Abbott seems to be arguing for a consolidation of political power, what with his goal of moving federal power to the states and with his strong new pitch to make him a sort of mayor-in-chief of all the cities, towns, settlements and camps in the state.

This is not the “United States of Municipalities,” Abbott told a crowd this week in Fort Worth.

“It would be far simpler and frankly easier for those of you who have to run your lives and businesses on a daily basis if the state of Texas adopted an overriding policy and that is to create certain standards that must be met before which local municipalities or counties can establish new regulations," he said, characterizing his proposal as a "broad-based ban on regulations at the local level unless and until certain standards are met.”

(Note to the governor's speechwriting scribes: Just spit-balling here, but shouldn't that line have been “United Municipalities of America?”)

Put all the power in one seat — under the parental gaze of a single, elected wise person who knows best. It’s so obvious, once you think of it, you wonder why the founders didn’t design government this way.

Maybe it's time to hold a convention to change the Texas Constitution. Abbott wants the states to take a blue pencil to the national document with the aim of diluting federal power in favor of the states. It’s a tall order; he could convene Texans more easily and get all the power a governor can handle — or more.

The governor could take charge of all the fun stuff mayors do: potholes, garbage and police and fire contracts. Don't forget all those parades.

He could get his hands dirty with planning and zoning boards or burn his fingers telling someone in Houston why they can't build a house between a water tower and a convenience store. He could regulate restaurants, taking charge of salmonella and hair nets and slime in the ice machines.

It would be a blast to run all those county jails, and putting local control in one office in Austin would make it much easier to move money from places where it's abundant to places where it's needed — the better to run every jail, every road project, every police department the same way and up to the same standard.

The guv could be the boss of the property taxes every Texan hates — especially if he rejiggered the system and took control of public schools in addition to counties, cities, municipal utility districts, public utility districts, hospital districts and all of the other annoying government entities that want us to pay enough attention to elect officials and pretend to exercise control over the way we’re governed.

If voting isn’t going to matter — or if the Wizard of Austin is going to overrule local decisions he doesn’t agree with no matter what the locals think — we might as well take the weed eater to those long November ballots.

Imagine how many election decisions we could dump. Who knows who’s on the community college board anyway? Voters wouldn’t have to say they don’t want plastic bags or fracking or ride-hailing drivers who haven’t passed criminal background checks. The folks in Austin could decide whether to build zillion-dollar stadiums for high school football.

Put all the power in one seat — under the parental gaze of a single, elected wise person who knows best. It’s so obvious, once you think of it, you wonder why the founders didn’t design government this way.

Fifty provincial viceroys each running a laboratory of democracy, each in charge of who uses which bathroom, where the bus lanes and the bike lanes go, whether there are gondolas and high-speed trains for mass transit, who grows hash and who makes hooch and who sells those intoxicants, whether there are lotteries, who gets deported and who gets taxed and how and whether it’s okay to park for free downtown after 6 p.m.

The governor of Texas could decide how tall your neighbor’s grass can grow before there’s a fine or whether the utility company could take a chainsaw to the overgrown hedge in the front yard: In turn, we’d finally have uniform city ordinances on vegetation across the state instead of a confusing patchwork of gardening laws.

He wouldn’t have to stop his campaign to rewrite the U.S. Constitution. His goals there are ambitious attempts to make sure that the state is on the handle end of the leash that leads to Washington, D.C.

What if Congress couldn’t regulate an activity that never crosses state lines? What if executive branch agencies couldn’t make regulations overruling state regulations (which means states could make regulations to overturn federal regulations)? What if two-thirds of the states could overturn Supreme Court rulings, or overrule Congress? What if it took seven Supreme Court justices instead of just five to declare a law unconstitutional?

Those items are in Abbott’s proposal for a convention of states. Combine it with the governor’s desire to corral the locals, and you have the makings of a pretty powerful central government in the state capital.

Abbott’s right about the laws here, by the way. That’s not surprising, as he’s a former judge and he’s been a lawyer for a lot longer than he’s been an executive. The states are entitled to keep the powers that aren’t expressly assigned to the big dogs in Washington; that tension between the feds and the states is baked into the cake. Cities and the counties are creations of the state, as Abbott says, and they do get a little big for their britches.

So do those ambitious provincial viceroys.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • The denizens of the Texas Capitol are already talking about the possibility of a special session if lawmakers haven't finished the budget and other bills by Memorial Day. They might be worried, but you shouldn't be.
  • The Texas Senate is proposing a new accounting trick to balance its 2018-19 budget. The contrivance would work, mathematically speaking, but it raises constitutional questions and faces derision from the House.
  • Gov. Greg Abbott has hit tough sledding with his call for more spending on early education in Texas. Lawmakers aren't warm to the idea, to say the least, and the governor hasn't assembled an army of supporters to back up his position.

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