This commentary originally appeared in TribTalk on March 31, 2016.
President Obama leveled a bit of harsh criticism at Texas policymakers recently. “The folks who are governing the good state of Texas aren’t interested in having more people participate,” he said while attending the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin.
The presidential reprimand is well-deserved — just not in the way that he intended it.
Denying people the right to participate in the political process is a regular occurrence in the Lone Star State. Texans are routinely given no say on the kind of government that presides over them, the level of taxes they pay and the debts they owe, or who represents their interests at city hall. Worse yet, a lot of very passionate people know the system is broken and have worked hard to fix it, but no one’s yet been able to abolish involuntary annexation.
Involuntary annexation is a practice that allows Texas cities, both big and small, to force property owners who live, work, and raise their families in communities just outside of the city limits to become residents, whether they like it or not. For those annexed, this often means giving up a more rural and low-key way of life in exchange for big city taxes and debt, nanny state rules and regulations, and urban-driven politics. All without an election.
That people are systematically denied a voice in the annexation process is a feature, not a bug.
Cities aren’t interested in having annexed people participate because elections are never certain, especially in contests where emotions run high. And an unfavorable result could cost cities what they’re after — more money and power. Incidentally, the Texas Municipal League, the chief taxpayer-funded lobbyist group for city governments, openly admits that “most cities annex for two basic reasons: (1) to control development; and/or (2) to expand the city’s tax base.”
Whatever the reason, the current annexation process is undemocratic and has no place in Texas, a state that prides itself on limited government and self-determination. Change is sorely needed.
One way to immediately improve this broken system is to require cities to get buy-in via an election from a majority of people residing in the affected area. In this way, property owners potentially affected by annexation can be assured of having at least some say over their destinies.
While it ought to be a no-brainer to allow people a chance to participate in the process, especially considering the taxes and debt involved, Texas’ local government lobby, which wields a lot of influence at the Capitol, has so far successfully stymied the idea. But that may not be the case for long.
During the last legislative session, lawmakers in both the House and the Senate came very close to changing the law. While the efforts ultimately came up short, things largely went amiss because of legislative shenanigans rather than the legislation losing on its merits. That bodes well for next session’s campaign.
Although the next legislative session is more than 8 months away, the campaign to abolish involuntary annexation is already well underway, with affected property owners, conservative groups and legislators teaming up all around the state to call attention to the need for reform. A recent example of this happened late last month just outside of San Antonio, with around 300 people, including state legislators, local officials, area activists, and think tankers, rallying against local annexation schemes. A similar demonstration in September drew 400 to 500 people.
The winds of change are blowing. Now more than ever, people want a voice in how and by whom they are governed. The only question is, as President Obama so aptly put it, are we, as a state, interested in allowing them a chance to participate?