Austin seems to have a time-honored role as a target for the ire of state legislators, but the capital city was hardly alone in a legislative session that saw the clearest and most persistent articulation yet of a sustained attack on the autonomy of local governments.
Several Texas cities have been involved in a large number of these skirmishes: sanctuary cities, plastic bag bans, transgender bathroom policies and ridesharing ordinances, to name a few.
But the increasing efforts to use state government to pre-empt the power of local governments emerges from a confluence of state and national politics that is much bigger than Austin, even though the Legislature has a history of treating Austin as a liberal burr under an ever more conservative saddle.
In the middle of the legislative session, the most popular and well-known Republican leader in the state, Gov. Greg Abbott, clearly articulated the approach percolating in the conservative corners of the GOP for several years and also underlying multiple pieces of legislation: “As opposed to the state having to take multiple rifle-shot approaches at overriding local regulations,” he told attendees at the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute in March according to The Texas Tribune, “I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says across the board, the state is going to pre-empt local regulations, is a superior approach.”
Advocates of state pre-emption are not without a foundation for their arguments. Even the staunchest defenders of the cities admit that local governments are created by the Texas Constitution, and that actions taken by cities, and local government powers, can be modified, reversed or revoked by state law.
The Texas Constitution’s provisions on local government entities are scattershot, yet the architecture that emerges clearly empowers the Legislature to define that relationship.
Constitutional grounds notwithstanding, the impulse to hamstring local city governments also reflects the geographic template of politics in Texas. It is no coincidence that the cities feeling the greatest legislative heat also hold large numbers of Democratic voters and elected officials in a state in which large urban areas are getting more Democratic with each election.
However, these efforts are not all about the urban/rural divide and the partisanship that it implies. For example, the recent efforts to curtail local property tax increases may have been primarily aimed at the fast-growing suburban and exurban areas that are homes to large numbers of Republican voters clamoring for property tax relief.
The fact that taking on local government sometimes means battling local governments elected by Republicans, too, points to the broader political driver of this new political orientation: the need for a new political foil in the wake of the surprising advent of Republican-dominated national government.
A shifting national political environment has hastened the crystallization of concerted efforts to make cities the new foil for conservative state government absent a Democrat in the White House.
Local city governments are the new coalition unifier. In a time of inter-party divisions, strengthening state government at the expense of local governments provides a conservative framing argument for the GOP coalition on a range of issues, social and economic.
Want to speak to social conservatives? Fight bathrooms. Energy firms? Fight fracking. The tech companies? How about a statewide framework for ridesharing. Rank and file Republicans? Outlaw sanctuary cities and override the policies of local police brass.
Advocates for Texas’ cities and the people who live in them require new arguments with more political resonance. Especially if they are to meet the new rhetoric of state supremacy emanating from conservative civic organizations and think tanks through the elected officials to whom they provide intellectual support.
The expiration of the “local control” message is a sign of a deeper need not just to find a new catch phrase, but to work harder to find a new rationale for defending the centrality of effective, semi-autonomous, local governments for the large number of Texans who live in the state’s growing urban centers – not to mention a set of messengers who can successfully articulate them.
Jim Henson is the director of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin. Joshua Blank is the manager of polling and research of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin.
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