Abbott and Patrick's special session fails to curb power of cities

Posted by Patrick Driscoll on

The United States of America has always suffered tension between cities and rural areas.

It is a longstanding American myth that cities are dens of iniquity and cauldrons of corruption, while the nation's small towns and rural areas are vessels of virtue and decency. That notion remains in today’s politics.

Here in Texas, Dan Patrick recently redefined the problem with cities. It’s not so much the notion of corruption. It’s political orientation. Their problem, he says, is that they are run by Democrats. Democrat mayors and Democrat city councils.

Actually, city elections in Texas and throughout the Sun Belt are nonpartisan. We don’t ask candidates about their political parties. City officials are, clearly, more liberal than state officials. But they are practical liberals. They have to be.

City officials are faced daily with problems that need solving, usually mundane problems: traffic, outbreaks of crime or disease, dealing with poverty while promoting new jobs. They have to work with business leaders as well as neighborhood activists. They don’t have time to make political hay by inventing problems where none exist.

Recently, Gov. Greg Abbott joined Dan Patrick in his hostility toward cities. Abbott waxed poetic in front of a group of Bell County Republicans.

"When you leave Austin and start heading north, you start feeling different," he said. "Once you cross the Travis County line, then it starts smelling different. And you know what that fragrance is? Freedom! It's the smell of freedom that does not exist in Austin Texas.”

Abbott thinks Austin and most Texas cities have too many regulations. So in calling the special session of the Legislature that ended this week, nearly half of the 20 items he put on the agenda were designed to reduce the power of city governments. It was a list that wouldn’t get him elected mayor, but it would play well in the Republican primary.

So how did he do? Thankfully, not very well.

The infamous bathroom bill telling local governments and school districts they must mess with America’s smallest and most vulnerable minority died. House Speaker Joe Straus enraged Dan Patrick by killing it.

Other bills died in various ways. These included:

  • A bill that would have banned local governments from contracting with Planned Parenthood to provide non-abortion health services.
     
  • Abbott’s proposed ban on ordinances protecting trees. It was reduced by the House to a bill that would reduce the fees cities could charge homeowners for removing downed trees if they planted replacement trees.
     
  • Developer-backed bills providing that building permits would be automatically approved if not processed within 30 days, and barring enforcement of regulations not in place when a piece of property was purchased.
     
  • A bill revoking ordinances in more than 40 cities regulating the use of cell phones by drivers. During its regular session, the Legislature passed and Abbott signed a ban on texting while driving.
     
  • A bill prohibiting cities and school districts from honoring the request of employees to deduct union dues from their paychecks. Politically powerful police and fire unions were exempted, making this bill a slap at the likes of teachers and garbage collectors.
     
  • The biggest loss for Abbott and Patrick was a Senate bill that would have provided automatic voter approval of any budget, even without a property tax-rate hike, that increased revenues by more than 4 percent. The House offered a compromise setting the bar at 6 percent, but the Senate refused.

So in the end, Abbott and Patrick had only one significant anti-city victory: a bill that prevents cities from annexing neighboring communities without putting it to a vote of those communities.

Their special-session war on cities fizzled.

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