Bob Dylan said it best: “For the times they are a-changin.’”
It used to be that cities had their way at the Texas Capitol. By wielding local control as a cudgel, city officials and their favorite trade association expertly advanced their agenda and killed any bills that threatened their power or revenue.
But no longer.
This legislative session saw cities come fully under a new paradigm — one that holds up local liberty over local control. It’s an immense philosophical shift that portends an aggressive redefinition of city governance in the years to come.
Though still budding, this realignment is already producing fruit, too. Here are some ways that Texas’ city halls will soon change for the better.
First, expect more public participation. Annexation is one area where this is especially true.
Last session, lawmakers passed a bill to give some Texans the right to vote before being annexed by a city. The new law proved to be quite popular, but it was flawed in one big way. It didn’t apply to everyone.
This session, lawmakers went back to work on the issue and finished the job. They passed House Bill 347, which gives every Texan the right to vote before being annexed, no matter where they live. All property owners now have a chance to have their voices heard.
Second, look forward to (somewhat) more property tax predictability.
In response to growing public outcry, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 2, which lowers the rollback tax rate — now called the voter-approved tax rate — from 8 percent to 3.5 percent for cities. In doing so, lawmakers have finally changed a rate established four decades ago under much different economic circumstances.
Under the newly reduced rate, cities can increase property tax revenues by a little from one year to the next without asking for the public’s permission. However, if city officials need a lot more tax money, then they’ll have to make their case to voters and win an election. That’s a major change in the status quo, and it should force some difficult (but much-needed) conversations about budget priorities.
Lastly, anticipate the public asking more questions — and getting answers.
In the wake of two tough court decisions, a growing number of cities were citing exceptions to the Public Information Act to purposefully withhold information from the public. To help reverse this trend, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 943, which grants Texans access to the particulars of most public contracts with private businesses.
Lawmakers also passed House Bill 81, which requires cities to disclose certain spending information about publicly-funded concerts. The bill came about after the city of McAllen refused to tell the public how much it spent putting on an Enrique Iglesias concert in 2015.
Without a doubt, city governance is transforming right before our eyes. We’re seeing fresh new thinking replace old stale ideas and a lot has been reconsidered, from whom cities can govern to how much they can tax to what they must tell the public. Importantly, the impetus for much of this movement is, of course, the transition away from local control and toward local liberty.
Dylan was right — the times are a-changin’. For those who prefer limited local government, that’s not a bad thing!