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As lawmakers try to curb local Texas governments, big-city mayors left out of meetings with Abbott

The governor held the first of three scheduled meetings with Texas mayors on Wednesday — but there's no word yet on whether he'll meet with mayors from the state's five largest cities.

Gov. Abbott announces he's running for governor in San Antonio on July 14, 2017.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional comment.

If Gov. Greg Abbott has disdain for how local Texas officials govern their cities, it didn’t show in a Wednesday sit-down with three mayors who were among 18 who jointly requested a meeting to discuss legislation that aims to limit or override several municipal powers.

“Whether we changed anybody’s mind or not, you never know,” said Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough. “But I will say it was a healthy conversation.”

What also remained to be seen Wednesday: whether Abbott plans to meet with mayors from the state’s five largest cities — who were also among those who requested to meet with the governor. So far, Abbott hasn’t responded to the requests from the mayors of Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

Abbott’s office has also declined repeated requests for comment about the matter from The Texas Tribune.

City and county leaders for months have criticized state officials and legislators for trying to limit how much say local officials have over matters voters elected them to decide. The 18 mayors requested a meeting after Abbott packed his call for a special legislative session with several matters usually controlled at the local level.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Wednesday that when he was a member of the Texas House, Republican lawmakers repeatedly complained about government growing and overstepping its bounds.

“And now we find that the state government is really reaching down and telling local governments what they can or cannot do and pretty much trying to treat all cities as if we are all the same,” Turner said.

During invited testimony to the House Urban Affairs committee on Tuesday, several city officials and at least one lawmaker denounced what they said were overreaching and undemocratic attempts to subvert local governance.

“If people don’t like what you’re doing, then there are things called elections. I don’t see it as our job to overreach and try to govern your city,” said State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg testified that it felt like the state was waging a war on Texas cities.

“The fundamental truth about the whole debate over local control is that taking authority away from cities — preventing us from carrying out the wishes of our constituents — is subverting the will of the voter,” Nirenberg said.

At Wednesday’s meeting with Abbott, Yarbrough said he and his counterparts from Corpus Christi and San Marcos told the governor that local officials have a better finger on the pulse of city residents’ expectations and demands.

“We wanted to make sure we preserved the ability for local municipalities to be able to adjust and react to the needs of their community,” he said.

Yarbrough and Corpus Christi Mayor Joe McComb said specific legislation that came up included bills that would require voters to approve local property tax rates if a government agency increases its collections by a certain amount and let residents in unincorporated areas vote when a city wants to annex their land. The Senate this week passed bills addressing both those matters. And a House committee on Wednesday passed more than a dozen of its own bills addressing rising property taxes.

The mayors also discussed legislation that would cap how much local entities could increase their spending without voter approval. That issue stalled in the upper chamber on Wednesday as Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, asked to postpone a vote on his Senate Bill 18 until next week so the legislation can be revised. He said the bill has “a lot of moving parts” and is a “work in progress.”

McComb said Abbott suggested state officials may open to major changes on the controversial spending cap legislation.

“He did indicate they may be replacing the election with putting the authority back on the city council but with a super majority instead of a regular majority,” McComb said.

John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, declined to discuss details of Wednesday’s meeting but called it “productive.” The governor is slated to meet with more mayors Thursday and next week.

“It was an open and frank discussion, and the governor thanked them for their shared commitment to making Texas better,” Wittman said.

And while Turner said he’s “not going to lose any sleep” over Abbott not inviting him to Austin yet, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price is more confident a meeting will happen.

“The mayor has always had a positive working relationship with the governor, and we’re optimistic they will meet soon,” said Cheraya Peña, a Fort Worth City Council spokeswoman.

Shannon Najmabadi contributed to this report.

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