This commentary was originally featured in the Austin American-Statesman on August 27, 2017.
The Texas Legislature’s special session may be over, but what happened over the last 30 days will have lasting effects.
Perhaps the biggest thing to take place under the pink dome this summer wasn’t the passage of a new law, but rather a shift in the way that the Legislature views local government.
Until recently, local officials have successfully wielded the concept of local control as both a sword and a shield — or as a way to advance and defend their legislative agendas. But this session saw lawmakers reject the rationale that local control is a good unto itself, choosing instead to accept more liberty-minded appeals.
In fact, on a range of different issues — from excessive taxation to overregulation to forced annexation — lawmakers advanced major pieces of legislation that despite loud protestations were aimed at diminishing the power and authority of local governments while empowering individuals. This is a remarkable trend that has the potential to radically alter the local policymaking landscape to the benefit of taxpayers, property owners and others concerned about the continued “Californization” of Texas.
Beyond the paradigm shift underway, Texas’ special session will be remembered as one that saw much-needed reform in municipal annexation.
Currently, Texas is one of the few remaining states that still allows involuntary annexation, a practice permitting home-rule municipalities to unilaterally capture property owners living just outside the city limits. Those involuntarily annexed into a city are subject to higher taxes, tougher regulations, and more debt — whether they like it or not.
Beginning in December, a new law will require big cities to hold a public election before annexing anyone who’s chosen to reside in an unincorporated area. That’s a major change in the status quo that will force big cities to rethink for the better what services they offer, how they market themselves and where money in the budget is spent.
Though the new law only applies to home-rule cities in counties with populations of 500,000 and more, there is an opt-in provision that allows voters in any county to petition to be included in the protections afforded by the bill.
Of course, this session will be remembered not just for the things that passed, but also for the things that didn’t — like property tax cuts.
Entering the summer, Texans on every part of the political spectrum were hopeful that the Legislature would act on the state’s most pressing problem. The most promising proposal would have seen reasonable limits put on the tax’s rate of growth while still allowing local officials to grow government by more with voter approval.
Though both chambers passed reforms in this direction, it became clear as the session staggered to an end that the House was unwilling to commit to the same level of protection as the Senate. So, taxpayers got lost in the shuffle and the effort fizzled out.
Even still, the failure of property tax reform could still play a big role in things to come.
For instance, if the governor decides to call a second special session — something that the Texas Public Policy Foundation supports — then there will be lessons learned by lawmakers and grassroots organizations alike that will shape the tone and direction of whatever comes next.
Even if the governor decides not to call another special session, lawmakers’ refusal to act has armed the grassroots movement with a powerful tool to hold their officials accountable. It will be hard for any lawmaker to explain to their constituents why nothing was done on Texans’ top priority, let alone by those who stood in the way.
Though dust from the special session is still settling, it’s fair to say that this was an incredibly important event. Not only because of the laws that were and were not passed, but also because it showcased the evolution that’s underway — one in which old underpinnings are fading away and new paradigms are springing up to take their place.