When state senators revive legislation on Saturday that could require voter approval of city and county property tax rates, lawmakers will also consider something that didn’t come up during this year’s regular legislative session: limiting how much money local governments spend.
Sen. Craig Estes' Senate Bill 18 would require cities and counties to get voter approval if they plan to spend a certain amount more than they did in a previous year. His bill ties such an election trigger to inflation and statewide population growth.
“You ask people about that and they generally think that’s a good thing,” the Wichita Falls Republican said Friday.
But local government officials and advocates for municipal government say the measure will hinder their ability to afford services that residents expect. They also say it will make it hard to keep up with population growth — especially in booming suburbs growing much faster than the state as a whole.
“We’re planning our budgets multiple years in the future because we've got so many capital projects that we can't just look at budgets from year to year,” said Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney, whose North Texas city grew almost four times as fast as Texas did from 2015 to 2016.
Estes' bill, plus others aimed at giving voters more frequent say over their property tax rates, are on the docket for Senate committees this weekend. They fall in line with several items on Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session call that seek to limit powers cities and counties have long exercised. Other bills being considered Saturday and Sunday would change how and when municipalities regulate land use and annex land outside their borders.
State leaders say they are trying to both respond to Texans’ complaints about rising property tax bills and protect landowners’ rights from local regulations. But local elected officials say lawmakers and top state leaders are unfairly portraying cities and counties as irresponsible stewards of taxpayer money to score political points with voters ahead of next year’s primaries.
Such tensions highlight a growing divide over how much say city and county officials should have over local matters. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the proposed spending cap is another example of lawmakers trying to control officials who are elected to represent Texans at the local level.
“It certainly flies in the face of the very important democratic principle that we've adhered to for centuries in self governance,” Nirenberg said.
On Monday, Nirenberg and the mayors of the state's other 17 largest cities sent a letter to Abbott asking for a meeting to discuss the bevy of special session bills they said would hinder their ability to “serve as the economic engines of Texas.”
Abbott began reaching out to the mayors Thursday to set up a meeting, said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. The chief of staff for El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said his office had been contacted in response to the letter. Staffers for other Texas mayors said late Thursday they had not been contacted yet.
"As far as we know, the governor’s office started calling those mayors today and saying, 'Yeah, come on by next week,'" Sandlin said Thursday. "That’s all we know."
While Republicans hold all statewide offices and both chambers of the Legislature — and many big city mayors and council members are Democrats — state GOP leaders looking to limit local officials’ powers are getting pushback from both political parties.
Cheney, the Frisco mayor, is a Republican. So, too, is Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who was among the mayors asking Abbott for a meeting. She said Estes’ spending cap bill isn’t necessary and could create unintended financial consequences that the state will simply leave the cities to address.
She said cities have de facto spending caps already, "in the form of your citizens who talk to you in terms of the services, what they want, what they don’t want and what they’re willing to pay for,” Price said.
Sandlin, with the Municipal League, said voters already have a way to control local officials' spending: city council and county commissioners court elections.
"It's got to be one of the most poorly conceived bills from a policy standpoint that I've ever seen," Sandlin said.
Estes couldn’t point to any examples of cities or counties dramatically increasing their spending in recent years. He said his office is currently collecting data from local governments on it. And he said he’s open to tweaking provisions in his bill as it moves through the Legislature.
But he shrugged off the notion that the state shouldn’t be telling local governments what to do. He said counties are extensions of state government, and that cities “reside in the state.”
“I don’t think that’s really an issue, that we don’t have any jurisdiction in what they’re doing,” he said. “We do.”
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.
Disclosure: The Texas Municipal League has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
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