Point Austin: Local Control Now in Chains
State clamps down on cities' right to govern themselves
The Texas Municipal League, a coalition of city governments, is getting increasingly anxious about the 86th Texas Legislature. In a broadside this week, the TML declared that Texas cities are "under siege" by an "unprecedented attack at the Capitol." Allowing for political hyperbole, it's hard to quarrel with TML's general assessment – the Republican majority appears determined to limit local authority as much as possible, in favor of retaining regulatory power at the state level – or as often, eliminate it altogether. We've seen this before, especially on environmental and energy matters, but this year it seems the GOP is going out of its way to restrict the ability of cities to govern themselves.
In a call to its membership, the TML declares, "You are being publicly painted as the enemy of your own residents. According to many legislators, your actions are an affront to liberty and property rights." The hope is that calls from local jurisdictions will persuade legislators that they're attacking their own constituents – while making a mockery of the traditional conservative defense of "representative government."
The list of pending, suspect bills is daunting: Senate Bill 29 would prohibit "lobbying" of the Legislature by cities (aka "We've got our fingers in our ears"); SB 1152 would halve easement fees paid to cities by telecom and cable companies; House Bill 2439 would preempt cities' ability to regulate building materials; HB 3167 would set a fixed time limit on city review of development plans, or grant approval by default; a couple of bills (HB 3899 and SB 1209) would limit city regulation of companies doing business in more than one city or holding a state license.
But Don't Cut Public Safety!
That's a selected list, but readers will likely note a pattern of granting preferences to private businesses and corporations at the expense of city residents (add here the list of bills stripping city protections of workers' rights, such as paid sick leave). The telecom/cable fee waiver is a direct donation to private interests at the expense of city taxpayers. The limit on "lobbying" is a longtime conservative fantasy of muzzling local progressive officials (because they can't defeat them at the ballot box). The development "shot clock" bill will be familiar to many Austinites as being in the tradition of finding ways to grandfather private development over any attempt by cities to protect the environment, limit sprawl, or even plan for and build infrastructure (another bill, HB 3417, would constrict city authority over extraterritorial jurisdictions).
And I haven't even mentioned the big artillery – HB 2 and SB 2, which would impose caps on incoming property tax revenue increases of either 3.5% or 2.5%. As Mayor Steve Adler has pointed out repeatedly (recently in his State of the City address; see "Adler: Lege Has 'Declared War' on Texas Cities," Apr. 26), if these caps are imposed, they will not just prevent cities from expanding services, but will necessitate cuts to existing services, including public safety (the largest portion of most city budgets). The bills' promoters argue that cities can go to the voters for approval of higher rates – but in practice this would have to happen long after most cities have planned their budgets.
The Politics of Denial
The mayor estimates the caps would mean a $35 million (3.5% cap) to $52 million (2.5%) hit to the 2020 budget – effectively creating a recession budget year. In his Austin Politics blog (April 18), Jack Craver makes a persuasive argument that prior City Councils have steadily undermined their own finances by installing and raising the homestead exemption, currently at 10% and an estimated annual cost (in reduced revenue) of $24 million. This was a major issue that Adler himself rode to victory in 2014, but the current Council is probably indisposed to raising the exemption, especially if the Lege imposes a cap. Craver speculates that they might even consider repealing it altogether.
That strikes me as, politically, a bridge too far, when the same Austin voters (overwhelmingly Westside homeowners) who will applaud the Legislature capping their taxes (even for a tiny windfall) would start swinging pitchforks at the thought of losing their precious exemptions. Council members pondering re-election campaigns are unlikely to hand potential challengers a ready-made brickbat – although if these caps pass, it's a possibility.
The more immediate puzzle is how much traction GOP legislators can gain by mounting a direct attack on Texas cities, basically blowing up their ability to plan their budgets or their futures. Speaking of a bridge too far, we may see if doubling down on anti-city politics can still bear fruit at the polls next year. In the meantime, Texas cities could be paying a heavy cost.