Two Ways About It
There are basically two routes to take. One would be to empower the cities, particularly the urban regions, to move beyond simple home rule and actually solve problems. The other would be to invest in services, at either the state or local level, to help the cities. Either way, Texas has examples to follow.
The empowerment strategy has been polished up in Oregon, mecca of progressive urban planning. For three decades, Oregon's cities -- which basically means Portland -- have been required to set urban growth boundaries beyond which they may not sprawl. This was designed to protect the rural areas beyond. But Portland quickly realized that the UGB was a tool to promote reinvestment in the city, which at the time could really use it.
Likewise, Portland has the nation's only elected regional government, known as Metro, which was again intended as a brake on the Rose City. It has become the place where urban, suburban, and rural interests are all massaged, which is a good thing for big, bad Portland. If we had real regional decisionmaking authority, Austin and Houston could resolve spats with their neighbors before they hit the House or Senate floor.
Meanwhile, the investment-and-service strategy has taken off in Pennsylvania, governed by Friend of W. and onetime veep prospect Tom Ridge. The Keystone State has a Governor's Project for Community Building, a Governor's Center for Local Government Services, Ridge-driven land use initiatives called Growing Smarter and Growing Greener, an enterprise-zone program that actually works and helps clean up brownfield sites, and a state-funded tech incubator program called the Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse.
All this, and millions of dollars in conventional grants and services to urban cities and counties, is managed by Pennsylvania's Dept. of Community and Economic Development, which this year received more than $282 million in state funding, and a bunch of federal funding on top of that. Here in Texas -- a larger state, with larger cities -- the two state agencies that handle the DCED's mandates (along with other expensive duties, like housing programs) spend less than that combined, even including their federal support. The lottery gets more money.
Now, Ridge's initiatives, which drive toward public-private and state-local partnership, are understood back East as a GOP-friendly move away from Big Daddy government. Would that Texas be infected with a little of that compassionate conservatism.