This commentary originally appeared in the Waco Tribune on February 15, 2015.
For years, there’s been a growing divide between the kinds of policies enacted at the state level and those imposed locally. As Texas state government has gotten more conservative, our local governments have become less so.
After all, it is our cities, counties and school districts who are largely responsible for Texas’ escalating property tax burden, the state’s massive public debt and most of the regulatory barriers to business growth and job creation.
The new statewide leadership has noticed — and they want to change it.
“Whether it’s a smoking ban, a plastic bag ban — whatever it is . . . we get a lot of communication from folks who feel like local government are taking away a lot of their liberties, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick recently told WFAA-TV’s Inside Politics.
Gov. Greg Abbott, at the Policy Orientation conference hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), attacked local regulatory overreach in no uncertain terms. “Texas is being California-ized, and you may not even be noticing it. It’s being done at the city level,” he said. “We’re forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”
Abbott and Patrick are right. Bad local policies are, without a doubt, the greatest internal threat to the long-term prosperity of our state.
Texas’ local governments have accumulated over $331 billion in debt, including principal and interest, that our kids and grandkids will have to pay off. Local debt represents 87 percent of outstanding debt in Texas.
Helping to pay off all that debt are the high property taxes squeezing Texas families. A recent TPPF report, “Homeowners and the Texas Property Tax,” found that the average Texas homeowner pays almost $2,500 annually toward property taxes, well above any neighboring states. That is enough to rank Texas’ property tax burden the 15th highest nationally, according to the Tax Foundation.
In addition to shouldering the high local tax burden, Texas families and small businesses regularly have to scale endless steps of local regulation. It starts with restrictions on using your own property.
Texas cities assert a virtually unlimited right to restrict the property of their citizens, as evidenced by regulations dictating what you can build on your property and what it looks like, telling you how many trees you must plant or restricting how many you’re allowed to cut, and numerous other laws infringing on property rights.
In the name of “managing growth,” planners have used local regulation to manage people’s lives. Just look at any city’s “comprehensive plan,” which looks years into the future at how a local government can shape its community like a ball of clay.
All of this regulation drives up the cost of living in our state, especially for low-income Texans. In the name of better-looking communities, the poor are kicked out the door. Low-income communities don’t really fit into plans — they’re just not aesthetically pleasing when compared to, say, “mixed-use” highrises.
The same “government knows best” mentality can be seen in the myriad local bans: plastic bag bans, fracking bans, Uber and Lyft bans, bans on non-hotel accommodations (think Airbnb). You could be driving through the DFW metro area, passing through city after city, and have no idea where it is, or isn’t, legal to talk on your cellphone.
Referring to local ordinances that elevate protection of trees above property rights, Gov. Abbott said: “This is a form of collectivism.”
Yes, it is. But so too when local officials spend our money, pass laws to restrict how we live our lives and tell us what we can do with our property — that, too, is collectivism.
If the Texas miracle is to continue, the march toward collectivist policies must stop. Instead of defending the interests of government officials and planners, Texas must act when necessary to protect the life, liberty and property of her citizens.
Jess Fields is the senior policy analyst in the Center for Local Governance at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation and a former College Station City Councilman. He may be reached at email@example.com.