This commentary was originally featured in the Austin American-Statesman on December 10, 2017.
Over the past 12 months, Texas’ public policy landscape has undergone some big changes, especially when it comes to local governance.
Take the issue of local control, for example. For years, powerful special interest groups representing cities, counties, and school districts at the Capitol have advanced their interests by arguing that local control is sacrosanct. This view suggests that local governments know best and any legislation chipping away at their authority is wrong — and in some cases even “dangerous.”
By couching local control in such terms, the local government lobby has been able to turn a tool into a rule and use it to essentially shut down the opposition. That is, until this year.
Prompted by concerns that Texas is being California-ized, the regular and special sessions of the 85th Texas Legislature saw conservatives push back against the idea that local control is a blank check and encourage a new, more liberty-minded philosophy.
This polished view suggests that local governments exist to protect life, liberty and property rights, not for the purpose of exercising autonomy. In other words, the emphasis is on local liberty, not local control — to the extent that local governments trample on these God-given rights, then the Texas Legislature has an obligation to rein in those bad actors.
Encouragingly, this view was widely embraced. In fact, that the Texas Municipal League, a highly influential group lobbying on behalf of city governments, said: “If 2015 was the year that local control began to lose its luster as a governing principle among some state leaders, the 2017 Legislative Session saw the culmination of this unfortunate trend. The new, improved mantra at the Capitol is ‘liberty’…”
It remains to be seen whether the Legislature continues trending toward local liberty, but for now at least, policymakers are looking at local governments through a better lens.
And, of course, that wasn’t the only seismic shift to occur this year.
During the special session, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 6 — the Texas Annexation Right to Vote Act — that effectively ended one of the state’s most tyrannical policies: forced annexation.
Until recently, cities in Texas were allowed to forcibly annex property owners without their consent. For those conscripted by a city, that meant accepting higher taxes, tougher regulations, and more debt without ever being asked. Not only was the policy undemocratic, but it was also un-Texan.
But all of that changed on Dec. 1, when the state’s new annexation law went into effect. SB 6 now requires cities in large counties to hold an election asking voters to decide on the question of municipal annexation. For communities not included in the bill, a petition process has been created to allow for counties of any size to opt-in if voters decide.
Texas’ new annexation law also means that cities will have to budget better. Prior to SB 6, it was common for cities to use forced annexation as a way to expand their tax base and capture additional revenue from wealthy suburbanites. But that way of generating revenue is no longer allowed.
The policy terrain improved in a lot of other ways, too. The Legislature pre-empted the patchwork quilt of local ride-hailing regulations with a uniform statewide system that’s expected to have minimal interference. Lawmakers also relaxed some of the regulatory requirements involving tree-cutting ordinances. And encouragingly, legislators denied local governments the ability to create and charge new fees on new development. The so-called “linkage fees” would have added to the affordability problem already affecting many of Texas’ urban areas.
Without a doubt, 2107 brought many big changes to Texas public policy. On issues as far-ranging as local control, municipal annexation, and ridesharing, a lot of noticeable improvements took place this year, arguably making Texas a more prosperous state now and setting the stage for good things to come.