Lege Lines: State Level Bullying Reaches New Plateau

Local reps’ mission this session? Keep the state GOP away from Austin.

Kirk Watson (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Whisper the words: Austin bashing. The old Texas legislative sport of picking on the capital city. Such a production can vary: lawmakers giving city staff a tough time in committee hearings; aggressive legislative intervention in local affairs; resting the state school finance system on the backs of Austin's property owners. Intensity ebbs and flows from session to session. This year, Travis County delegates fear state-level bullying may reach a new plateau.

Gina Hinojosa, a first-term state rep facing her first bout of Austin bashing, told the Chronicle she was "surprised to hear" a fellow Democrat (who didn't live here) discuss "how her legislation was disadvantaged because it was modeled after an Austin program." Kirk Watson, the two-time mayor turned three-term state senator, provided a bleak forecast, suggested that this year's opposition could eclipse that seen at previous sessions. He attributed Austin bashing in part to a general assault on city and county-level democracy. "The idea of local control has gone away," said Watson.

Of course, many states use capital cities as political punching bags. Mayor Steve Adler noted this week that Charlotte, N.C., Madison, Wis., and Sacramento, Calif., all face similar issues. That serves as small consolation when GOP lawmakers are filing bills to overturn local positions on a slew of big-time issues. The latest case – Gov. Greg Abbott's threat to create a law that would let him remove law enforcement officers if they don't comply with U.S. Immigrations & Customs Enforcement (ICE) – manifested Wednesday when Abbott lobbed threats against Travis County Sheriff Sally Her­nan­dez for her recently released policy regarding the federal agency. While such issues don't solely impact Austin, Adler said, "It feels like we're the target. We're emblematic of other cities."

Steve Adler (Photo by John Anderson)

That's where the issue of local control arises – the flip side of the conservative fixation on states' rights. Just as they see the Feds as secondary to state legislatures, so state law tends to dominate city ordinances. Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, doesn't see much intellectual coherence. "It's 'local control unless the locals want something'" that the state-level GOP doesn't want, he said.

Other cities have experienced centralized attacks in the past. In 2014, Denton voters banned fracking within city limits, and legislators responded with House Bill 40, prohibiting local ordinances regulating the oil and gas industry. However, that was a rare GOP assault on a surprising issue in a Republican stronghold. Austin representatives know their city routinely rests in the crosshairs, and await intel on which issues will trigger ire. Which means that an aspect of this is self-inflicted. Adler said when City Council considers an issue the state GOP might not like, "There's often a discussion about whether we pass it, if we'll be able to hold on to it if the legislature comes into town. But we were elected to do a job."

Expect such a perspective to create an additional burden for local legislators. When Council takes a stand on a principle issue, knowing that GOP lawmakers will file legislation to overturn it, the challenge becomes one for the Travis County delegation to fight. That takes time, and every lawmaker knows those 140 days in the session burn up fast. Every fight to protect a local position means less time spent passing progressive legislation. State sessions are about picking battles, but the local delegation often has them picked for them by City Council. Said Rodriguez, "They really are helping to make sure I'm using as much time as possible."

Watson remains equally irked by wasteful tantrums against Austinites, or residents in other cities, and the ways they want their hometowns run. "I don't believe the Legislature is an appellate court for local decisions," he said. That could explain why he takes such issue with Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, who described last year's vote on rideshare regulations as a "mob rule." Huffines has now filed SB 113, which would effectively overturn that vote by introducing statewide transportation network company regulations – regulations much more in line with the ideals of Uber and Lyft. "How do you call it mob rule when an entity uses the local charter to call an election, then they had all the free speech they wanted, and then people voted?" wondered Watson. "That is not mob rule. That is local decision making – not even by local government, but by local people."

While such fights may take a lot of time and energy, Rodriguez argues it's still the broader GOP policies – the ones that affect every city – that will hit Austin the hardest. It's the tax rate cap, making it harder for cities to cover their bills, and, of course, school finance, that will leave the biggest and most lasting damage.

Yet there's a ray of hope. As the GOP-dominated Legislature inflicts misery on cities throughout the state, Austin's problems become everyone's problems. Hinojosa noted that, during recent school finance hearings, "Chairman [Jimmy Don] Aycock was the first to say, when Houston started to gripe, 'Well, how are you different to Austin?'"

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Kirk Watson, Gina Hinojosa, Eddie Rodriguez, Greg Abbott, Steve Adler, Sally Hernandez, 85th Lege

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