Skip to main content

Analysis: A victory for the locals, at least for a while

The cities and counties won the latest round of the state's war on local government. But it's a temporary win, at best.

Houston, TX

Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.

The latest battle in the state’s war on local government ended with victory for the little guys.

They won’t face state-ordered spending limits. They won’t face automatic elections when they raise property taxes faster than the Legislature wants them to.

They won’t be subject to most of the ideas on Gov. Greg Abbott’s list of 20 things he had hoped the Legislature would put into law during the special session that ended last week. He went 9 for 20 — a pretty good average, considering, but far short of what he wanted.

But this war isn't over.

The session — the list — was political enough, but where the governor has played up the policy patina of statewide law over “a patchwork of confusing local laws,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick went right to the politics in an interview earlier this month with the Fox Business Network.

"People are happy with their governments at their state level, they're not with the city," he said, after a question about gubernatorial races. 

“Our cities are still controlled by Democrats,” Patrick said. “And where do we have all our problems in America? Not at the state level run by Republicans, but in our cities that are mostly controlled by Democrat mayors and Democrat city councilmen and women. That's where you see liberal policies. That's where you see high taxes. That's where you see street crime.”

Abbott’s Texas is in court with its cities, too, over the hardline “sanctuary cities” bill passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor earlier this year. It’s an echo of Abbott v. Obama — a steady stream of lawsuits and grievances the attorney general-turned-governor filed against the federal government.

Abbott has pushed for stronger state government and weaker federal government for a while. Now he’s expanded the business plan to include weaker local government.

People and companies always make use of the state government as a sort of appellate court when they lose at the local level. That’s a tale as old as government. But there’s no denying this has picked up in recent years.

Lawmakers overruled Denton voters a couple of years ago, after the local electorate ratified a ban on fracking inside the city limits. The oil and gas industry came to the Legislature for a rescue, and got one. Earlier this year, the Legislature overruled Austin voters, who had voted to require the same background checks of drivers for ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber that the city required of cab drivers.

The governor’s push for legal conformity across the state was baked into the bathroom bill, too. Several versions of that legislation would’ve erased local discrimination ordinances and school district policies.

It amounts to a steady drip that has local officials bristling — the same way the state bristles when the federal government tells it what to do. Their challenge to the sanctuary cities law reflects both that feeling and the longstanding local gripe about unfunded mandates from Austin.

People and companies always make use of the state government as a sort of appellate court when they lose at the local level. That’s a tale as old as government. But there’s no denying this has picked up in recent years.

Two bills that didn’t pass — proposed caps on local government spending and the property tax bill — will be back. Patrick is already brandishing the latter as a campaign issue, saying as the session ended that legislators who voted for a 6 percent limit on property tax increases before requiring voter approval instead of a 4 percent limit will regret it.

The truth is that the final versions of the property tax legislation from both Patrick’s Senate and Joe Straus’ House exempted most of the cities and counties in Texas. Despite all the talk about the state providing property tax relief, neither version would have cut the taxes Texans pay now. Frankly, it stirred more political interest and activity from the cities and counties under threat of being leashed than it did from the taxpayers it was supposed to benefit.

Overall, the local governments escaped this year’s legislative efforts with more wins than losses. They’ll face new limits when they want to annex unincorporated areas into their cities. Their zoning and permitting authority remains untouched, but that fight is just starting. They can still make their local texting-while-driving laws tougher than the state’s; the effort to trim their sails on that fell short.

The local governments and their associations have reason to celebrate, but only for a bit. Like a lot of wins in the Texas Legislature, this one will only last until the lawmakers come back: The war on local government isn’t over.

Disclosure: Uber and Lyft have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Texans need truth. Help us report it.

Support independent Texas news

Become a member. Join today.

Donate now

Explore related story topics

Greg Abbott Sanctuary cities Special sessions