"This Is Austin Bashing on Steroids"
This legislative session, state GOP lawmakers ran an all-out assault on municipal values
In early February, just as the 85th Legislature was getting going, Gov. Greg Abbott declared Texas would "hammer" Travis County for Sheriff Sally Hernandez's decision to honor U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests only for those charged with serious crimes. Turns out the governor was packing quite the mallet.
Abbott immediately stripped the county of $1.8 million in state grant funding, straining critical services for veterans and struggling families. But the battle against our residence (and residents) didn't stop there. GOP legislators used Travis County to stir up fear and peddle mistruths about anti-immigrant Senate Bill 4, as Abbott bashed the county publicly, including during his secretive Sunday night bill signing. The state doubled down in May when Attorney General Ken Paxton filed suit against the mayor, City Council members, and Hernandez over the "papers, please"-style law, a move that again pits deeply red state leadership against its progressive capital city. (Austin filed its own suit against Texas a few weeks later.) SB 4 intrudes on and overrides the policies in place at local law enforcement departments, a state-knows-best approach publicly opposed by virtually every police chief in Texas' cities.
While SB 4 stands as the most high-profile piece of legislation to target cities this session, it's far from the only one. From the outset, the Texas GOP – while espousing the hallowed virtue of "local control" – made it a mission to chip away at local ordinances and the decisions of voters and democratically elected officials. In the ideological battle to defend supposed "liberty," legislators targeted everything from Austin's bag ban to ride-hailing rules and affordable housing measures. And with a recently called special session, Abbott's war against Austin will continue.
"This is Austin-bashing on steroids," said Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin. He and his colleagues in the Travis County delegation spent a sizable share of their time fending off anti-local control bills. "I have not seen anything quite like this in the 20 years I've worked at the Capitol. Abbott is using us as a piñata, and he's going unapologetically full throttle. He's looking over his shoulder at [Lt. Gov.] Dan Patrick, one of the most extreme politicians, and trying to keep up."
The governor intensified his anti-city rhetoric in March when he threw his weight behind a broad-based law to pre-empt local regulations – chinlessly asserting the country is not called the "United States of Municipalities." (House Speaker Rep. Joe Straus opposed the measure.) "Instead of the state having to take multiple rifle-shot approaches at overriding local regulations, I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that is going to pre-empt local regulations is a superior approach," Abbott told an audience at the Austin-based Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute. This from the same man who bragged about waking up and suing the Obama administration every day to resist "federal overreach" – and maintain local control – when he was the state's attorney general.
"Many of the same people that are historically advocates for local control with respect to Washington don't seem to share the same view when dealing with local communities," Mayor Steve Adler told the Chronicle, noting the hypocrisy of some Republican legislators.
The mayor acknowledged that the Texas vs. Austin tension isn't particularly new, but what did appear novel was the Lege coming at all urban areas with guns blazing. "Generally speaking there's always been some measure of hostility toward Austin. We're used to that, because we have different culture and values," he said. "But one of the key differences this session is that it seemed the Legislature also showed a hostility toward most cities and urban areas generally. … Cities are really the economic engines for the state, so I would expect Texas to do anything it could to strengthen cities. But that does not seem to be the view of the governor and many members of the Legislature."
Council Member Greg Casar, an outspoken critic of the state's right-wing leadership, echoed that point – that as Texas metros such as Dallas and Houston turn bluer, anxious state legislators have ramped up their attacks on progressive ideology, usurping local ordinances as an avenue for control. "Austin-bashing at the Lege is a long-held tradition, but I think now the Legislature is focused on not just Austin but progressive governance in general," said Casar. "It's not just about pre-empting fair chance hiring rules or ride-hailing regulations: I think their strategy is part of a long-term plan to suppress cities as bastions of progressive power and to crush successful movements where working people have stayed organized.
"It will continue until they recognize their regime is built on a house of cards that will fall apart when they grasp tighter and tighter for power. In the meantime, I think that their overreach is a clear sign they are getting very nervous."
When Austin voters resoundingly opted to ensure ride-hailing companies require background checks and fingerprinting last May, Uber and Lyft – buoyed by powerful and flush lobby campaigns – skipped town in defiance of the commonsense safety measures. But now they're back, thanks to Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, and his HB 100, which undoes local rules and places transportation networking companies under the purview of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. HB 100 does require local, state, and national criminal background checks, but it doesn't force drivers to be fingerprinted; nor does it allow a number of other reporting and licensing measures included in Austin's rules. Opposing the bill on the House floor, Rodriguez said he was defending a "clear mandate" from Austin voters. Yet when signing HB 100, Abbott heralded the law quashing local regulations as a "celebration of freedom and free enterprise," and criticized Austin for rejecting that ostensible freedom. "As your governor, I will not allow Austin, Texas, to California-ize the Lone Star State," he said, paying no mind to the fact that Uber and Lyft are both headquartered in the Golden State.
Legislation this session didn't just unravel democratically elected propositions; it also prevented options for local equity. As Austin struggles with gentrification and affordable housing, advocates and some council members hoped to institute linkage fees as a tool to alleviate the problem. The mayor's Task Force on Institutional Racism suggested setting up a dedicated pool funded by a fee of $2 per square foot on new commercial buildings, which would raise $60 million annually and create 400 housing units. HB 1449, co-authored by Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, and local Republican Rep. Paul Workman, scrapped that possibility altogether. "It's an opportunity that many people loved that now won't be realized," said Adler. "It's unfortunate the Legislature acted pre-emptively; I think we really could have come up with something universally endorsed."
A Few Victories
However much damage the Lege inflicted upon municipalities this session, their sights were set even higher. SB 103, by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, sought to scrap the city's 2013 rules requiring that grocery stores halt use of single-use plastic bags. After opposition from environmentalists and even ranchers, the bag ban bill was left pending in committee. SB 451, by Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, would have greatly limited cities' ability to regulate short-term rental properties. Austin's City Council last year voted to impose occupancy limits and a phase-out of commercial STRs. That ordinance can continue; though SB 451 was greenlit by the Senate, it died in a House committee.
A measure that would have repealed Austin's hard-fought Fair Chance Hiring ordinance also withered away before hitting the House floor. Workman's HB 577 would have rolled back a City resolution requiring private employers to hold off on asking about a job applicant's conviction history until a conditional offer of employment is made. Casar called the victory "a real testament to the work of formerly incarcerated activists and their allies."
Another bill opposed by local officials saw defeat at the hands of a two-hour filibuster by Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio. SB 715, by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, would have forced cities of over 500,000 residents to gain voter approval before annexing areas. (At present, cities can annex 10% of their extraterritorial jurisdiction each year without a vote.) The bill would have created a tax equity problem; residents in proximity to a city can reap benefits without contributing to the tax base. And it would have done away with ongoing strategic partnership agreements between the city and municipal utility districts, said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who opposed the legislation: "What business does the Legislature have involving itself in a successful agreement? If they aren't going to be helpful, they need to get out of the way."
Watson said the Lege's targeting of Austin is not necessarily unprecedented, but the level of aggression is. "It's gotten really ugly. There's always been a desire for some to use the Legislature as an appellate court, but it's taken a turn where name-calling is involved," he said. "What's even more troubling is that there are real issues at the state level that aren't being addressed."
A Not-So-Special Session
Gov. Abbott reignited his attack on Austin in early June when he announced that the Lege would reconvene for a special session on July 18 to – among other misplaced priorities – again take aim at local ordinances. During a press conference, he singled out Austin by name, slamming the city for "over-regulation." The 20-item call includes a slew of measures to curb what local government can do, from construction to heritage trees to texting while driving and a revival of Campbell's failed annexation bill – all issues that directly impact Austin. The red-meat call also includes the discriminatory anti-trans "bathroom bill," which could roll back local LGBTQ protections. Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, called respect for local control at the Lege "yesterday's news," and denounced the sweeping special session list as an "all-out assault on the ability of Texas voters to decide what's best for their communities and their neighborhoods."
The agenda also includes a revisit of Houston Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt's property tax reform bill, SB 2, which would force voter approval if a city or county seeks to up taxes by more than 5%. (Currently, local governments can raise the tax rate up to 8% without triggering a rollback election.) Local officials such as Adler and Watson say pointing fingers at cities when it comes to property tax relief is a smokescreen – the real culprit is the state's overreliance on an inequitable school finance scheme. "Some state leaders blame [property tax problems] on cities and counties when they ought to be looking in the mirror," said Watson.
For critics of Abbott's state overreach, the finger-pointing illustrates another strategy: When a state dominated by one party produces so many legislative failures – from school finance to racist voter ID laws to underfunded health care – the party must find a scapegoat, a villain to accuse, when in reality, they only have themselves to blame.
Smells Like Local Spirit
Adler and Council Members Casar, Jimmy Flannigan, and Leslie Pool staged an impromptu press conference at City Hall following Abbott's call for a special session, to censure the continued undermining of local authority. Adler dubbed Abbott's sweeping agenda a "war against cities," while Flannigan called the idea that one of the most successful cities in the nation is treated as a failure "a laughingstock." Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, still grappling with the impact of Abbott's punitive funding cuts, chimed in separately: "We at Travis County have prepared for the prospect of another round of political game-playing at the Capitol. Despite the fact that this is a notably safe, prosperous, and fiscally sound community, the leaders of state government appear determined to create a crisis that will make it harder for us to meet the needs of our residents and our workforce."
The day before calling a special session, Abbott couldn't resist taking another cheap swing at Austin, this time for its apparent libertyless odor: "As I was coming up here from Austin, Texas, tonight, I gotta tell you, it's great to be out of the People's Republic of Austin," he said to a GOP audience in Bell County. "As you leave Austin and start heading north, you start feeling different. Once you cross the Travis County line, it starts smelling different. And you know what that fragrance is? Freedom. It's the smell of freedom that does not exist in Austin, Texas." A couple of days later, Mayor Adler hit back at Abbott's rhetorical punch: "The air in Austin is pretty sweet with an unemployment rate that is a point lower than the state, a lower violent crime rate than the state, and the highest rates of patents and venture capital in the state. … And the air is sweet with tacos."
For Abbott, freedom means stripping cities of democratically elected decisions, local autonomy, and progressive values, and stifling strong people-powered movements for equality and social justice. Considering Austin's fearlessness in taking Texas to court over SB 4 and its steady vocal condemnation of state bullying, it's a safe bet local leaders will continue to fight tooth and nail to ensure Abbott's doublespeak version of "freedom" never sweeps over the city.