Big City Blues

It Has Three of the 10 Largest Cities in the U.S., So Why Doesn't Texas Have an Urban Policy?

John Hall
John Hall (Photo By John Anderson)

For decades, the state of Texas had a very straightforward relationship with its cities: You leave us alone, we'll leave you alone. Compared to other states, Texas did little for its municipalities, especially where funding was concerned. But in return, Texas cities could wield unusually broad home-rule powers to manage not only their own affairs, but those of the regions that surrounded them.

And everyone was happy, as the phenomenal growth of Texas' cities in the last 25 years can attest. But now, the urban boom -- and Texas' post-bust renaissance has been almost exclusively an urban phenomenon -- is making the old city-state contract harder to honor. It was, after all, Austin's rapid growth that scared us locals into passing ordinances to limit development over the aquifer. And we've all seen, over the past decade of Austin-bashing, what the Legislature thinks about that particular use of our home-rule powers.

Now, the Lege didn't start screwing around with Austin (or, just as often, Houston) because the state wanted to redefine its relationship to its cities. Rather, lawmakers took what they felt were necessary measures to protect decent country folk from those crazy Austin hippies and scary inner-city Houstonians. But now the Lege is starting to see what the cities have long been aware of -- that big-city issues, and conflicts between cities and suburbs and countryside, are natural consequences of growth and are arising everywhere.

So will the old city-state contract still work? Or have years of Austin- and Houston-bashing given the state a taste for infringing on home rule? And if so, is the state ready to begin investing in its cities, or at least using its powers to help urban areas manage their growth and serve their citizens? It's unlikely these questions will get answered this legislative session. But they are being asked.

Urban Legends

Texas is home to three of the 10 largest -- and five of the 20 largest -- cities in America, more than any other state including California, which only has four of the Top 20 (see "Big and Getting Bigger," opposite). So talk of an urban policy -- the strategies the state follows, whether making laws or spending money, to help its cities grow and thrive -- is not moot here, and it wouldn't be hard for the state to find things to do for its cities if it so chose (see "Two Ways About," below, for a look at how two other states, Oregon and Pennsylvania, have successfully addressed the issue of urban policy). But Texas' self-image as a primarily rural, resource-based state, where the cities simply exist as service centers for the ranches and oilfields, is taking a long time to die.

And Texas most definitely has a rural policy, with not only the Lege but three quite powerful state agencies -- the General Land Office, Dept. of Agriculture, and Railroad Commission -- each headed by elected officials, focusing on issues that typically don't get perceived in Texas' cities. By contrast, the theoretical lead agency on urban issues is the disordered and scandal-plagued Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs -- hardly a seat of power and glamour.

So the cities have been left to fend for themselves, and up until recently nobody was really complaining. "Right now, Texas is characterized by a high level of home rule and an absence of state fiscal aid -- there's virtually none now -- and that's been an unspoken agreement that cities like," says Frank Sturzl, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. "They'd rather have the home rule than the money, and the state likes saving tax dollars, and most members of the Legislature are supportive of home rule."

Sen. Jon Lindsay
Sen. Jon Lindsay

That is, until you do something like pass the Save our Springs Ordinance. That kind of real-life regulation of land use, which at the time made Austin look like the sideshow freak of Texas cities, now makes us look prophetic. "A lot of those issues had focused on Austin because we had grown so quickly," says John Hrncir, the city of Austin's government relations director. "We're now seeing some of those same conflicts between developers and existing communities -- in some ways to an even greater degree -- in other parts of the state. And the legislative response is becoming more sophisticated."

Folks within the process largely feel that, in Sturzl's words, "The Lege doesn't have an anti-city bias. But cities do things that make people mad. They condemn. They annex. They require or withhold permits and approvals. ... Land use is where city authority is at risk, and our growth is going to make that more apparent. There's going to be some sort of shaking out of who has what authority -- and the counties have this too -- and who's going to exercise it. Now whether we do that piecemeal, one bill here and another there, or comprehensively, remains to be seen."

More than anywhere, it's the urban counties -- particularly the suburban fringes within those counties -- that are forcing urban issues, albeit slowly, into the legislative spotlight. While Texas cities have broad home-rule authority over land use, Texas counties have almost none, because they don't have the power to enact local ordinances. (Compare this to California, where counties have broader ordinance and regulatory powers than do many cities.) Which means that counties have to let basically anybody build basically anything basically anywhere.

And around Texas' big cities, the counties have even less power, because the cities control their extraterritorial jurisdictions (ETJs) and can, or could, annex almost completely at will. (All of Harris County is within the city of Houston's ETJ.) Yet millions of people now live in these thoroughly urbanized political no-man's-lands, as well as in places like the Rio Grande Valley where even sizable communities are often unincorporated.

So every session the alarum is raised that counties need ordinance authority, and every session bills to that effect are carried, and every session they go nowhere, even when they have substantial support from both sides of the aisle. This time around, "We'll be talking about bills [to extend] ordinance authority -- at least piecemeal, on some issues, which is what we're doing anyhow -- for at least the urban counties," says GOP state Sen. Jon Lindsay, who was Harris County judge for 20 years before his election in 1995. "I'm not optimistic about their chances of passage, and I think we need to be realistic about how we address that issue. And even I'm not enthusiastic about giving unlimited ordinance authority to the counties."

Last session, Lindsay was vice-chair of the Senate Intergovernmental Relations (IGR) committee, which handles state-local issues in the upper chamber. On the House side, there are committees on Urban Affairs and on County Affairs, the latter being where county-ordinance bills oft breathe their last. Among this year's prefiled bills are perennial nonstarters to extend broad ordinance powers, comparable to home rule, to the border counties, and to give coastal counties power to regulate beachfront development. (As part of the state's perennial efforts to deal with the misery of colonias, border counties already have more land use authority than others, including their own planning commissions.)

Other than that, County Affairs will be dealing with the small stuff, like giving the counties the power to ban fireworks. And even those bills are likely to be bracketed -- that is, targeted to one urban area, which more than half the time is Houston. (Any bill that applies to cities "with a population over 1.2 million" is a Houston bill. Likewise, any bill that applies to cities "whose council members are elected at large" is an Austin bill.) This despite the fact that, as Lindsay puts it, "ordinance authority would go a long way in the direction of letting cities and counties and suburbs work together to address common issues."

Hugo Berlanga
Hugo Berlanga (Photo By John Anderson)

Indeed, there are issues that can be handled no other way, says former legislator Hugo Berlanga, now a lobbyist representing both the city of Austin and his hometown of Corpus Christi. "Until we empower counties to deal with health and safety issues, if nothing else, we'll continue to deal with water and infrastructure problems in these sprawling areas. ... Eventually it'll happen, but some very harsh lessons will have to be learned first. We only deal with these problems when there's a crisis."

As Berlanga notes, "urban issues" go beyond land use, though that's the hot button that gets pressed most often at the Capitol. "There's health and human services (and) the administration of justice," says Don Lee, director of the Texas Conference of Urban Counties, noting that these expensive and expanding areas of service are solely in the hands of resource-strapped counties. (Only here in Austin does the city carry substantial responsibility for public health.)

"And transportation is as big a part of urban policy as anything there is," Lee continues, "and that's completely fragmented between cities, counties, transit authorities, MPOs [metropolitan planning organizations], and the various parts of TxDOT. How do you bring those people together for coherent leadership? Many people think it's positive to have this kind of fragmented government, because it requires broad consensus to move meaningfully forward in any direction. But bringing those fragments together is something Texas is going to have to look at."

John Hall, the former Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission chair who's now lobbying for both Austin and Houston, thinks "transportation is the biggest urban issue" facing this legislature. "The lieutenant governor [Bill Ratliff] has indicated that will be an important issue, [and] it appears there's a positive attitude from state leaders about transportation issues."

This is, of course, related to land use, as are other areas of interest to Hall and his clients: air and water. "Local governments, and especially large cities, want to maintain the authority they have to address a broad range of local issues," Hall says. "In Austin that may be water quality, but in Houston it may be maintaining water supply rights." Given that both TDHCA and TNRCC are going through sunset review this session, there's ample opportunity for the Legislature to tell cities what to do.

District Distractions

But it's unlikely that the 77th Legislature will do much that you'd call "sweeping" on the state-local front, because its attention will be occupied by this year's Topic A, redistricting -- which is itself a big part of the urban agenda. Says Berlanga, "Redistricting will deal with increasing urban vs. rural representation, with the flow of federal dollars, with two new congressional seats" likely to be in urban areas, "and with the splitting of communities across the lines of congressional or senatorial districts.

"There will be more reps in the suburbs and fewer in the cities," Berlanga continues, "so you'll see more regionalization" of major issues. "It won't just be Houston or Austin or San Antonio standing alone, but working within regions to get more bang for the buck. There will be issues that the fringe areas will not concede to the metropolitan areas and their sprawl, but there are bigger issues like transportation, water, and the environment that have to be dealt with regionally. The big changes will come into play after this session, when the dynamics of the whole political landscape will have changed."

Now, Texas has nothing you could call "regional government" and isn't likely to. But you'll see moves to divide power and responsibility more equally between cities and their suburbs, as happened last session with the revamping of municipal annexation powers. A good case study is Lindsay's repeated attempts -- this will be the third time -- to change the composition of the board of the Houston Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the majority of whose members are appointed by the Houston mayor, to increase suburban representation on Metro's board. "The city of Houston hasn't grown in population except for annexation," he notes. "We have one million residents outside the city who are served by Metro, but the city controls everything."

But even if the Legislature takes something larger than a baby step, it's likely that real action on things like regional planning -- or inner-city reinvestment, or funding urban infrastructure -- is only going to happen if the Lege gets kicked in its backside. Opinions differ on who would do the kicking. "The executive branch is going to have to set the drumbeat that everybody needs to follow," says Berlanga. "There isn't enough concerted effort from all the state agencies on transportation, or housing, or infrastructure issues to make things happen quickly enough. Things happen so slowly that communities lose out." (Exhibit A, he adds, is Austin's current transportation crisis.)

Others think a Texas urban policy will have to come from the bottom up. "If urban Texas is going to develop a more cohesive policy that's going to benefit the entire state, then county officials are going to have to take that lead, because they cross all the other jurisdictional boundaries," says Don Lee. "State government does not see urban Texas as anything that needs their help. There's a feeling there's enough leaders and resources to go around for urban Texas, between mayors and county judges and school superintendents and (transit agency) chiefs and whatever else. But that can be shortsighted. If we're going to continue to thrive in this state as a whole, we need to recognize the interdependence between our communities. Attention by the state on the needs of urban areas is also vital for rural areas of the state."

For either Berlanga's or Lee's scenario to happen, one thing has to happen first: The voters have to care, and redistricting may put more voters who do care in reach of political power. "If enough voters are concerned about an issue to make it a top issue in the minds of the leadership in both House and Senate, we'll see issues consolidated into a uniform policy [and] structural changes to deal with the issues in a comprehensive way," says Hrncir. "The voters do call that shot." end story

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urban policy, Texas Legislature, Frank Sturzl, Texas Municipal League, home rule, land use, John Hrncir, Jon Lindsay, colonias, Hugo Berlanga, John Hall, Don Lee, Texas Conference of Urban Counties, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, Houston Metropolita

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