Texas’ big sky and wide-open spaces may be legendary, but as the state’s legislators arrive in Austin for their 88th session, they need to remember that Texas is no longer a rural state.
Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston rank among the six largest metropolitan regions in the U.S. for both population and economic output. More people live in Harris County alone (more than 4 million), or in Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties combined (4 million) than in all of rural Texas. Seven in 10 Texans reside in the Texas triangle – the area bounded by Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio-Austin, which also accounts for three-quarters of the state’s economy. In fact, 90% of Texans live in the same kinds of urban, suburban and exurban neighborhoods that people on the East and West coasts do, making our state one of the most urbanized in the U.S.
Both Texas’ problems and its opportunities are the quintessentially urban ones of affordable housing, efficient transportation, social welfare, education and immigration. That is not to say that the issues of rural Texas are not important. They are. And of course, the Legislature leans Republican while Texas’ biggest cities lean Democratic. A certain amount of political give and take between them is inevitable.
But during past sessions, policymakers have not only failed to address metropolitan Texas’ needs constructively, they have hobbled the efforts of local governments to do so themselves by limiting their ability to raise revenue and restricting the types of laws and regulations they can impose. Texas should be empowering local innovation, not blocking it. Local leaders – Republicans and Democrats, urban and suburban – need both the resources and the authority to craft policies that address their needs and spur innovative solutions.
But that’s not enough. Texas’ biggest and most intractable problems affect the entire state and thus demand statewide commitments.
First and foremost is the rising cost of housing. Until a few years ago, Texas’ cities enjoyed a huge cost-of-living advantage over their coastal rivals. No more. Prices have skyrocketed. Bold steps are needed to spur more housing construction.
State agencies have surplus land in expensive locations that could be used for affordable housing. Instead of using funds from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act for property tax relief, the state could use it to provide a much-needed boost in affordable housing production.
Homelessness is reaching crisis levels, and the state needs to equip local leaders to address it directly – not with punitive measures, but by ensuring that emergency housing and mental health resources are available.
Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan has signaled increasing infrastructure investments would be a priority this year. That’s good news for the Texas metros but the state’s biggest cities are as gridlocked as Los Angeles or New York, and it is hard to travel between them. More highway capacity is needed, but the state also needs to broaden its transportation investments.
Increased rail capacity from ports could take thousands of trucks off the roads, for example. Adding more bus routes in cities would reduce urban traffic and allow poorer residents more access to opportunity. So would nontraditional approaches to transportation, such as subsidized ride- and bike-sharing services.
Despite all the state’s success in attracting skilled professionals, its homegrown students are not receiving the training they need. Middle-skill jobs account for 56% of Texas’ labor market, but only 42% of its workers are trained to that level. Investments in workforce and skill development are badly needed. Increasing funding for the state’s community colleges and tying it to improved outcomes would go a long way.
The challenges that Texas’ metros are grappling with cannot be reduced to town versus country or red versus blue. Metros are mosaics of both. Legislators must move beyond their zero-sum thinking and ideological posturing and meet their constituents where they live, which is increasingly in metropolitan regions.
Steven Pedigo is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.
William Fulton is an adjunct professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.