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Analysis: You can fight City Hall — if you’re governor of Texas

Local government attorneys in Texas are about to take a page from Greg Abbott, who spent 12 years as the top attorney for the state of Texas — suing a faraway government that has its nose in their business.

Gov. Greg Abbott lays out items for a special session at a press conference on June 6, 2017. 

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City attorneys all over Texas are getting ready to read from the Book of Abbott, wherein the former attorney general for the state of Texas sayeth: "I go into the office, I sue the federal government and I go home." Sub in "state" for "federal," and you might just have the new credo for top municipal lawyers in Texas. 

The idea was stolen, with permission, from Dave McNeely, a longtime Texas political writer who still writes columns for papers across the state. McNeely is onto something — a notion that captures the peculiar position of a state run by federalist Republicans who want to cage the government in Washington, D.C., and who also believe Texas has given far too much leash to local governments.

Greg Abbott’s line referred mostly to the Obama administration that was in power during the second half of Abbott’s 12-year tenure as the state’s top lawyer. But now that he’s governor, local government attorneys are lining up to sue the state government, most recently over a stringent immigration law created this year.

It’s a war on two fronts. The state still has issues with the feds, though the Republican Texas government has been showing some forbearance to the newly installed Republican federal government. The new action is on the local-state front.

Look at the agenda for the special session that will start in less than four weeks.

A debate will renew over a proposal to require automatic rollback elections when cities, counties and special districts raise property taxes by more than a particular amount (5 percent is a common suggestion). Here’s the thing: Voters just hate property taxes. In the recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 77 percent said the state should, by all means, interfere with the locals on this.

Local governments have pushed back with a list of their own complaints. The state should stop sending expensive rules and mandates that help push up local spending — and taxes. Local voters put local officials in office and can kick them out if they don’t like the results. The law already allows voters to petition for rollbacks when taxes rise too quickly. Taxes don’t go up as quickly as the state says, anyhow. The biggest local property tax is the one for schools — and increases in that tax are driven by the state’s declining per-student spending on public education. Each argument — that last one, in particular — has some merit.

Whatever. If you’re in politics and your voters are angry about something, it’s only natural to address the source of their anger. Property tax reform, appraisal reform, revenue caps on government spending — all of those are popular with voters and, as a result, with politicians.

The governor is after local laws that limit property owners’ right to cut down big, old “heritage” trees — a rule that might be more popular with Texans trying to keep developers from mowing down a forest to build apartments but that chafes homeowners who — like the governor himself — want to take out a pecan tree that happens to be in the perfect spot for a swimming pool. That’s two fights in one: Who should have the power to crank up the chainsaws, and who should have the power to say the trees should stay or go? Abbott is with the property owners — and the state government. 

He’s still against the feds, too. He wrote a campaign book — "Broken but Unbowed" — arguing for stronger state governments and a weaker federal government. His push for a convention of states to consider federal-government-limiting amendments to the U.S. Constitution proved popular with legislators this year, even though voters have not embraced the idea (in the UT/TT Poll, 54 percent said they like the Constitution just the way it is, thanks, while only 28 percent want to change it).

Abbott’s making a power move in the other direction, too. The argument against a spreading patchwork of local city and county regulations echoes the consumer movement that was in vogue when Abbott’s generation was coming into adulthood, with its push for uniform standards in place of perplexing local rules and regulations that, while designed to protect people, often serve to confuse them.

One such customer, state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, complained before the session about Austin’s attempt to regulate ride-hailing companies and the companies’ decision to bail on the state capital. He could get Uber or Lyft to pick him up in Georgetown and take him to Austin, he said, but couldn’t get them to take him back home, because those companies had decided not to do business in Austin. His colleagues agreed with him, voting to erase regulations like Austin’s and to put the state behind the regulatory wheel.

Texting while driving is another example, and one that shows the governor’s interest. Lawmakers passed — and Abbott signed — a statewide ban on texting while driving. It took 10 years of trying to get that into the law books, but a tragic accident at the beginning of the session helped spur lawmakers to finally do something.

Still, the governor hesitated. He signed that into law, but also said he will ask lawmakers for a supplement during the special session — one that would obliterate standing local laws on the subject and take away cities’ ability to regulate the issue themselves.

City attorneys are busy with the “sanctuary cities” lawsuits right now and haven’t jumped at the texting law. Local tree hugging is threatened, but still in place. The governor’s proposals to limit municipal annexations and zoning and permitting laws haven’t been debated. Property tax reform is still on the table. The folks in the state Capitol are busy with projects that could give the local lawyers years of reasons to hop out of bed, go to work and sue a higher government.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, 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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