Urban, suburban, rural Texas mayors condemn state Legislature’s overreach, support 'patchwork quilt' policy strategy

The 86th Texas legislative session includes several bills that would pre-empt local control.

The 86th Texas legislative session includes several bills that would pre-empt local control.

Overall, the Texas Municipal League, a nonpartisan group that advocates for Texas cities at the state Legislature, is fighting over 150 bills they said deteriorate municipalities’ ability to govern themselves, but on April 22, Executive Director Bennett Sandlin laid out what he said are the 10 worst offenders.

The bills ranged from the widely reported property tax revenue cap proposals, to the lesser-known loosening of building material restrictions and firefighter disciplinary proceedings. Sandlin highlighted a bill that would pre-empt cities’ local ordinances applying to short-term rentals, businesses and tree protection. Other bills included a reduction in fees charged to telecom companies to use public right of way and blocking lobbyists who advocate on behalf of cities.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who joined Sandlin and Mayors Mary Dennis and Stephen Haynes of the suburban Live Oak and rural Brownwood, respectively, at a press conference the afternoon of April 22, continued his crusade against the state’s attacks on local control, especially focusing on the 2.5% or 3.5% property tax revenue cap proposal.

“This session is more focused on attacking cities than any session I can remember,” said Adler, who admitted Austin has a history of opposing state policy. “We have an assault that is being waged against all cities, not just one or two. These actions are untethered to sound public policies. Cities are in trouble.”

Dennis said she could not a name a top three out of the ten bills presented, claiming they were all bad.

“What we’re asking is, simply, we as elected officials, let us do the job we were elected to do—provide civil services to our cities,” Dennis said. “We’re able to do that because of the way the system is set. Why bother something that’s not broken?”

Haynes said the state’s pre-emption bills fail to take account of Texas’ vast geographic diversity and how that impacts the values and operation of its municipalities.

“What makes sense in [Texas’s big cities] won’t make sense in our rural markets because our issues are different; our personalities are different; our values are different,” Haynes said. “These pre-emption bills take all that away; it’s a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t make sense most often for the rural markets.”

Roughly 74% of the Texas population lives in a municipality; however, municipalities only make up 4% of Texas’ land area, Sandlin said. He said a "patchwork quilt" of state regulations is necessary for a state as vast as Texas.

"This idea that we ought to have uniformity among cities is really the opposite direction we should be going," Sandlin said. "This idea that one size ought to fit all makes no sense."

Haynes said most times, the blanket policies the Legislature often passes are adopted by the larger cities, and do not “at all” address the nuanced needs of smaller municipalities that are also legally bound to adopt them.

“Our voice in our government is being eroded daily,” Haynes said. “That’s why local control is so very, very, important in the state of Texas. We ought to be able to decide the issues in Brownwood, Texas, that directly affect our systems. Local control is critical. It’s a fundamental concept of liberty … [and] conservative values.”

Sandlin said the issue of local control is not only permeating politics in the Lone Star State, but has been trending in other statehouses across the country since 2015.

"All of my counterparts in other state [municipal] leagues are facing many of the same bills, sometimes identical down the comma," Sandlin said. 'National think tanks are pushing [saying] it's too much trouble to go city-by-city fighting regulations or even negotiating bills. Why not go to the statehouse and cut cities off [from the conversations]?"

Below are the 10 bills outlined by the Texas Municipal League as the “most harmful city-related bills.”

Revenue caps
Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 2 propose a property tax revenue increase cap of 3.5% and 2.5%, respectively. Cities across Texas have criticized the bill for placing economic pressure on municipal operations while providing minimal tax relief for property owners.

Telecom and cable franchise fees
SB 1152 and HB 3535 would mandate that cities reduce use of public right of way fees levied on cable and telecom companies. Texas Municipal League asserts it could cost municipalities millions of dollars in revenue.

Super pre-emption for business
HB 3899 would prohibit local regulation on businesses that operate in more than one Texas city. The bills would impact cities’ ability to regulate pay-day lenders, strip clubs or massage parlors, according to the Texas Municipal League.

Super pre-emption for occupations
HB 2847 would prohibit local regulation on any person or business who holds a related license with the state, such as driving instructors, audiologists or cosmetologists.

Anti-lobbying
SB 29 and HB 281 would prohibit cities spending tax dollars on lobbyist groups, such as the Texas Municipal League, to advocate on a city’s behalf at the Legislature.

Short-term rentals
HB 3778 would take regulation over short-term rentals away from local cities and turn it over to the state.

Annexation for smaller counties
HB 347 would go a step further than the 2017 version which restricted annexations by cities in counties with over 500,000 people. This latest version would restrict annexations for all Texas cities unless approved by the landowners of the area eyed for annexation.

Heritage tree protection
HB 969 would pre-empt local ordinances aimed at protecting urban trees, such as Austin’s ordinance that protects its heritage trees.

Deregulating building materials
HB 2439 would pre-empt local ordinances aimed at regulating building materials. If a building material is accepted by the international building code, it would be legal to use in all Texas cities.

Procedure for firefighter discipline
HB 1895 would make disciplining or firing firefighters more difficult by imposing a set of rules and procedures that is currently only required for cities with over 10,000 residents.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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