Like a parent preparing to discipline unruly children, the Texas Legislature is getting ready to rein in local governments on everything from taxation to regulation to annexation and more. And city officials are none too happy about it.
The latest high-profile flare-up came courtesy of Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who used his State of the City address last month to express alarm, stating flat-out: “The state has declared war against its cities and we must be prepared to defend ourselves as best we can.”
The mayor’s address was peppered with rhetorical flourish about the Legislature’s “looming shadow” and how it felt like Austin was “under attack by the state” amidst a broader “assault on cities.” Adler continued to make his case at a post-event press conference, saying he felt compelled to “let people know what is happening.”
On the surface level, the mayor has it mostly right. There is indeed a fierce state-local struggle underway at the Texas Capitol and more people need to know about it.
But the mayor misses an important point. It’s not a war against cities, but rather a fight for individual Texans.
Over the last few years, Texas has undergone something of a paradigm shift when it comes to local public policy. It used to be that local governments were viewed as being closest to the people and granted tremendous authority as a result. But over time, and with the further exertion of power by cities over our lives — from dictating how we carry our groceries home to whether we can cut trees on our own property — the realization has grown that self-government is superior even to local government.
Some cities, like Austin, are threatened by this trend. They see the move toward individual empowerment as an erosion of their base of power, and they’re doing everything they can to stop it, including delivering fiery speeches.
Another point muffed was the mayor’s assignment of blame. Throughout his address, he repeatedly pointed the finger at the Legislature. But if we’re honest about it, state lawmakers aren’t really the ones behind the bills. That’d be the general public.
Texans want to have more input into and more control over their local governments. That budding desire is the source of much of the legislation that cities dislike, which includes everything from letting voters decide on big annual tax increases to allowing employees to navigate the marketplace free of government regulation, to giving voters a chance to decide on municipal annexation. All of those reforms enjoy broad public support, which is evidenced by the fact that a popularly elected body is on the verge of making them happen.
It’s a shame that the mayor isn’t more willing to embrace the idea of self-governance or accept that it’s being driven by the public-at-large. But that’s the direction that folks want to go and it’s something that big city mayors are going to have to get accustomed to.
So the next time you see a city official lashing out at the Legislature, keep in mind that it’s probably not a bad thing.