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In Texas Politics, A Brewing Battle Over State Vs. Local Control

Clayton Harrison

Across Texas, city officials are critical of the special session agenda set by Gov. Greg Abbott -- they say many of the items are basically an attempt by state lawmakers to influence what city leaders do at the local level.

It's a battle of state versus local control.

Brandon Formby is a reporter with the Texas Tribune, who’s been covering issues surrounding local control -- he talked with KERA's Eric Aasen.

Interview Highlights: Brandon Formby

The Texas Municipal League advocates for city governments – the league calls the governor’s priorities an all-out assault. Why?

City leaders are saying the state is increasingly meddling in matters that should be left up to local leaders and that in recent years state lawmakers are passing laws that increasingly regulate cities and counties – everything from property taxes, ride-hailing regulations, transgender people’s use of bathrooms, immigration, short-term home rentals.

Among the items on the special session agenda: Property tax reform. A proposal is in the works that would create rollback elections when a city or county wants to raise property taxes above a certain amount. What are municipal leaders saying about this?

They’ve been fighting it.  They say such requirements would make it harder for them to balance city and county budgets. The said that could keep them from being unable to afford basic services that their constituents expect them to provide. The flipside of that is state leaders are saying if city and county leaders are spending money wisely, they shouldn’t have problems balancing the books.

There’s also something called municipal annexation reform. What is it?

This was a bill that looked like it would pass during the regular session, but it died in the Senate during a filibuster. One of the proposals is expected to be if a city wants to annex a neighborhood that’s in an unincorporated area that they get approval from most of the homeowners in that area.

Trees are also an issue. How did trees become such a big deal?

The governor said it’s a matter of property rights. That city tree ordinances interfere with homeowners’ or landowners’ ability to do what they want with their land. One of my colleagues at the Texas Tribute actually found out that Abbott had a run-in with Austin’s tree ordinance. Before he sold his private residence in 2015. He had a pecan tree that was damaged during construction at his home and that the city of Austin required him to plant trees to replace it.

The governor says cities are over-regulating and that threatens the state’s economy. What do cities have to say about that?

Their big question is if it’s threatening the economy, why has the Texas economy been doing so well? City leaders point out that most of the state’s jobs, most of the state’s economy, is based in cities.

One theme we’re seeing is this division between city officials and state leaders over the role of government and different levels of government.

Experts say as politics nationally become more divisive, that trickles down to the state and city levels. Cities are becoming more and more left-leaning but you’re seeing statehouses become more and more right-leaning. When that happens during an environment where there’s a lot of partisan divide, the statehouses are increasingly getting more involved in issues they think the cities are going too far on.

Brandon Formby is a reporter with the Texas Tribune. He’s on Twitter at @brandonformby.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Photo: Clayton Harrison/Shutterstock.com

Copyright 2020 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Eric Aasen is KERA’s managing editor. He helps lead the station's news department, including radio and digital reporters, producers and newscasters. He also oversees keranews.org, the station’s news website, and manages the station's digital news projects. He reports and writes stories for the website and contributes pieces to KERA radio. He's discussed breaking news live on various public radio programs, including The Takeaway, Here & Now and Texas Standard, as well as radio and TV programs in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.