Courtesy / Texas Tribune
AUSTIN – Almost every discussion surrounding cities at the Texas Tribune Festival Saturday touched on a central theme: local governments are warring with the Texas Legislature to retain local control. It's a fight that spiked during the special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott that resulted in wins for both sides, but is far from over.
From topics such as climate change and immigration to property taxes and economic development, the state is "over reaching" into complex cities that need different, flexible policies, many local and state leaders said. Others argued its the local municipalities that are interfering with liberties, especially property rights, of residents with restrictive rules.
“The notion that you can force someone to be in a city when they don’t want to be doesn’t seem to be very American to me," said State Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) during a discussion about annexation.
The Legislature passed Senate Bill 6, which will require most cities in large counties to hold an election for populations in proposed annexed areas starting on Dec. 1. The bill contained a five-mile buffer zone to protect military bases from encroaching development, but it's unclear how the rules will be implemented and litigation is expected, said State Rep. Justin Rodriguez (D-San Antonio).
That legal ambiguity is why Rodriguez, a practicing attorney and former San Antonio City Council member, voted against the measure. "It is going to be challenged [in court] and drawn out," he said.
Earlier in the conversation, he quipped that he was "filibustering the conversation" until State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) could arrive – a reference to Menéndez's filibuster of State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels)'s original annexation bill that did not include the five-mile buffer.
Campbell and Menéndez sat side by side during the panel that was moderated by Rivard Report Director (soon to be Publisher) Robert Rivard.
Cambell said San Antonio's recent "egregious" annexation plans sparked many residents to reach out to her office and call for the removal of the home-rule city policy that allows for annexation of adjacent property and therefore collection of commercial and residential property taxes.
"It’s like the government telling the people you have to work for us," Campbell said. "But the government works for the people."
But suburban communities built just outside city limits, Menéndez said, get the “benefits of living near or close to the city without paying taxes. ... Those neighborhoods would not have been built or developed were it not for the City of San Antonio.”
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg reiterated his stance on protecting and enhancing local control during a particularly heated exchange with State Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) Friday night.
"In particular, issues of tree preservation, of the ability for cities to grow revenue as their communities grow, issues of the authority of annexation and land-use controls, and even the things that are beneficial on their face to the state – such as protecting our military installations – were under attack” during the regular and special legislative session, Nirenberg said. “[Sen. Huffines] provided one of the most egregious bills of them all, which was trying to do away with home-rule cities altogether."
Senate Bill 6 did not include an exception for its land-swap with the City of Converse. That deal will now have to be reworked.
Saturday afternoon, the topic of local control arose again during a discussion about the economics of big cities with San Antonio Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, and El Paso Mayor Dee Margo.
Gov. Abbott pushed for a cap on how much property taxes cities can collect from property owners during the regular and special session. The measure failed, but the conversation about rising property values and how to save taxpayers money continues.
What people don't realize, Price said, is that a majority of the tax rate actually goes to public education – which used to be funded by the state.
Over 17 years the ratio of local and state funding for schools has flipped from roughly 60% state to 60% local.
“As state funding shrinks, local must pick that back up," she said, adding that for most residents, property tax bills are the "most misunderstood bills that they pay."
That goes for most funding. The state doesn't have a lot of money to allocate to cities beyond transportation funds, she said. "The states aren’t funding us, so why tell us exactly what to do?"
But the state stepping into local matters is "not a new concept," Workman said during the previous annexation panel. It's written in the state constitution.
The governor and other Republican legislators classified mayors as out-of-touch Democrats, moderator and Tribune reporter Brandon Formby noted. He asked the panelists how they felt being "lumped in" the same heap in that way.
Price and Margo had a pretty big problem with this as they are both Republicans and have held previous public offices as such.
"Potholes don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat," Price said.
The aggressive anti-city bills that came out of the special session are simply "over reach,” Margo added. "[Abbott] thinks Austin’s turning into San Fransisco.”
One of the biggest differences between local and state elected officials is that locals are in more direct contact with the community they represent, Price said.
"You see your mayor at church or at a restaurant," she said. "I’m not sure that [some legislators] understand the complexities of running cities."
Mayors and Council members are the "urban mechanics" Saldaña said – down in the nitty gritty, seeing and addressing problems first hand, every day.
Meanwhile, he added, the state is “digging holes and then trying to sell us a ladder,” he added, referencing the "distracting" bill that would restrict transgender people from using the bathroom that matches their sexual identity.
In the case of climate change, it's up to the local governments to fight for policies that advance resiliency of cities – without, it seems, the help of state or federal agencies, Nirenberg said. The panel, "How Cities are Tackling Climate Change," also featured mayors Steve Adler of Austin, Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and former Houston Mayor Annise Parker.
The panelists agreed that real impact will truly begin at the local level.
"If we’re going to make change regardless of who is president … we need to have cities lead that agenda,” Nirenberg said, and push both Democrat and Republican leaders.
The most important argument cities can give their cities in favor of adopting more sustainable policies is an economic one, Parker said. Once they understand that it will save money, she doesn't need to go into all the science behind it.
Still, however, the science is an important – albeit wonky – piece of the discussion. A majority of scientists agree that humans are causing global climate change.
If you go to ten different doctors and 9 say to get a tumor removed, Nirenberg said, "You don’t go to the one that says, 'Naw it’s okay."