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City leaders, advocates criticize Abbott for special session agenda

Some urban officials say the governor's list of priorities for a summer session will harm the state's economy and undercut local Texans' abilities to influence their communities.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler testifies during a House committee hearing over a bill that would pre-empt local regulations on ride-hailing companies on March 16, 2017.

Urban Texas leaders on Tuesday criticized the legislation Gov. Greg Abbott wants from a 30-day special session, saying his list of priorities could hurt city economies and undercut how local residents influence their communities.

At least half of the 20 items on Abbott’s list pertain to matters that cities, counties and school districts either oversee or play a role in handling. Six take direct aim at how cities collect property taxes, set budgets, grow boundaries, regulate land use and permit construction projects.

The governor's list garnered backlash from Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and advocacy groups. Their reactions highlight a continuing division that is playing out nationally between statehouses and city officials over which level of government should have local control and when.

The Texas Municipal League, a city government advocacy organization, called Abbott’s priorities an “all-out assault” on Texas voters’ abilities to shape “the character of their communities.”

“Stifling [voters'] voices through an all-powerful, overreaching state government is a recipe for disaster,” the group said in a prepared statement.

Abbott said he wants the session to produce legislation that would cap local government spending, prohibit cities from regulating trees on private land and speed up permitting of construction projects. He also wants bills that would allow or require voters to approve two things: property tax rates if overall government revenues exceed certain thresholds and many cities’ attempts to expand their borders to include neighborhoods built in unincorporated areas.

Conservative lawmakers cheered particular items on Abbott’s list. That included State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, who authored a bill during the regular session that would have prevented cities from annexing land without approval from homeowners living on it. Democrats killed Campbell’s bill in a filibuster on the next-to-last day of this year’s regular session.

“Guaranteeing Texans a voice in the annexation process will make our local governments more accountable and limit their appetite to tax, spend, and expand with no end in sight,” Campbell said in a statement Tuesday.

City leaders weren’t so happy. In announcing his list of priorities Tuesday, Abbott said that cities’ overregulation of certain matters threatens the state’s economy. But Adler denied that assertion later Tuesday. At a news conference, he said the state’s attempts to more closely manage how cities operate is the real threat to the state’s fiscal well being.

“Austin has one of the hottest economies in the country, so clearly we're not overregulating,” he said. “We create more middle-income jobs than any other city.”

City leaders say that recent legislative sessions have seen a shift away from state lawmakers leaving many local decisions up to officials elected at the city and county levels. Local leaders say they are closest to the issues affecting Texans and already have to answer to voters.

“Residents of cities elect mayors and city councils to address local issues and governors and legislators to address state issues,” Turner said in a statement Tuesday evening. “They do not elect governors and legislators to micromanage local affairs.”

But lawmakers routinely say the state created and decided what powers to give its local governmental entities. They say they have a responsibility to protect constituents from cities that overstep their bounds or enact rules that lawmakers deem to be infringements of liberty.

Experts say this divide has become more prominent across the country thanks to the increased polarization of politics, Americans self-sorting themselves geographically into big cities or suburban and rural areas and lawmakers drawing their own districts.

During the regular session, the Legislature took up bills that will or would have pre-empted local ordinances on or handling of matters like transgender Texans’ use of bathrooms, ride-hailing, immigration, short-term home rentals and property tax collections.

And Abbott laid the groundwork for a special session filled with local matters even before his announcement Tuesday. Addressing the Bell County GOP on Monday night, the governor used Austin as the poster child for a “liberal agenda” he vowed to fight.

“As your governor, I will not allow Austin, Texas, to California-ize the Lone Star State,” he said.

Most — but not all — of the state’s largest counties vote Democratic in partisan elections. But local elections in Texas are not conducted by party affiliation, even though city officials may make their political leanings publicly known.

Austin City Council member Greg Casar on Tuesday said Abbott’s special session wish list has less to do with policy differences than it does with Republican state leaders’ attempts to hold on to their political power. He said they feel threatened by Democratic-leaning cities.

“There is a real, long-term political collision ongoing in Texas now that the majority of the population is in our cities and you're starting to see higher levels of voter turnout,” he said.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. The Texas Municipal League has also been a financial supporter of the Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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Politics State government 85th Legislative Session Texas Legislature