Texas Republicans take aim at liberal cities
AUSTIN — The sunset red granite of the Texas state capitol stands at 302 feet. It towers over nearby Travis County and Austin municipal buildings, as if to convey a physical superiority over those lesser government bodies. When legislators return for a special session this week, they will advance a series of laws that would make that state supremacy more concrete.
Republicans who run Texas are increasingly targeting laws passed by cities and counties with so-called preemption measures, bills that would restrict a local government's power to pass laws regulating certain industries or setting policy. It is part of a national trend in which Republican legislators are moving to preempt local governments, on issues ranging from minimum wage laws to immigration enforcement and even the use of plastic bags at retail establishments.
Supporters say the preemption laws are meant to create a consistent set of laws around a state. Opponents say it is a way for conservative legislatures to overrule more liberal city governments, at the cost of local control.
"Part of it is motivated by our urban communities that are very blue and Democratic and have different ideas about the environment and workers rights. I think it's just offensive to Republican leaders," Gina Hinojosa, a Democratic state representative whose district includes the core of downtown Austin, said in an interview in her Capitol office.
In Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has the power to set the agenda in this week's special session, legislators will consider eight new measures to take power away from county and municipal governments.
Two proposals would set caps on taxes and spending. Two others would govern permitting and construction projects. One would prevent cities from requiring homeowners to seek approval before cutting down historic trees on their own property. Another would set a statewide standard for texting while driving, superseding local efforts to crack down on distracted driving.
The last, and perhaps most controversial, would limit a local government's ability to dictate whether transgender students have the right to use bathroom and locker room facilities of their choice.
The bill, similar to one passed in North Carolina last year, has generated intense opposition from business groups across Texas. On Friday, IBM, one of the largest employers in the state, took out a full-page ad in major papers around Texas opposing the bill. Business groups plan a rally at the Capitol Monday to reiterate their opposition to the bill, which they say will cost Texas billions in lost economic activity.
Abbott said the legislation is his way of ensuring local governments do not step on the rights of Texans.
"What we've seen in Texas is a growing rise of actions at the local level that infringe upon people's liberty. And just like I fought back against the federal government that was infringing on people's liberty, I'll fight back against federal, state or any government that infringes upon people's liberty," Abbott said in an interview in San Antonio, where he kicked off his bid for a second term as governor.
As Republicans have built their political power in state capitals across the country, Democrats who run the nation's largest cities have increasingly found themselves at loggerheads with state officials. Some state legislatures have prohibited local jurisdictions from raising the minimum wage. Others have blocked cities from enacting tougher restrictions on gun possession.
Earlier this year, Texas passed a law meant to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities, where local police do not comply with federal immigration detainer requests — even though there are no sanctuary cities in Texas.
Austin itself has been a frequent target of the state legislature. The sanctuary city law came after the newly elected Travis County sheriff, a Democrat, said her officers would not comply with detainer requests, a decision set to take effect in September. The ban on local tree ordinances targets an Austin law — one that frustrated Abbott himself when he tried to build a swimming pool at his Austin home.
"Austin is always number one on that target list," Hinojosa said.
Nationally, at least 140 measures preempting local government actions were introduced in legislatures this year, according to Grassroots Change, a California-based group that opposes preemption laws. Nineteen of those measures became law, including three so far in Texas.
"These have really become just out-and-out fights between the state legislature and communities," said Mark Pertschuk, who runs Grassroots Change. "This is an issue of democracy."
One state, Arizona, has passed a law that could withhold state funding from city and county governments that pass laws any state legislator finds objectionable, a so-called blanket preemption. Texas Republicans proposed a similar measure, though state House Speaker Joe Straus (R) quietly killed that plan.
Pertschuk said laws that start at the city and state level have frequently become national models on everything from workers' rights to public health — like child labor laws, fire prevention measures and smoking bans.
"Almost everything that keeps us from being crushed to death or dying from chronic disease too early in the history of the United States has been done at the local level," he said. Preemption laws "will stop innovation in civil rights, in safety and in community health."
Abbott, a former state Supreme Court justice and Texas attorney general before winning the governorship in 2015, said the state is well within its rights to set standards for local governments. It is the state constitution, not the United States Constitution, that lays out a city's or county's powers.
"Tell me in the [U.S.] Constitution where it mentions cities. Tell me where it mentions counties," Abbott said. "The way the country was created, the way it was designed, the architecture of the United States of America puts states at the centerpiece. States create counties and cities and give them the authority that they can have."
Both Abbott and Hinojosa said the clash stems from a changing Texas, in which the state's population is increasingly moving from rural areas to urban cores and booming suburbs. Four of the 10 counties that added the most new residents in the last year are in Texas, the Census Bureau reported in March.
Since 2010, 26 counties in America have added more than 100,000 new residents; eight of those counties are in Texas, more than any other state. That growth has meant a shifting power dynamic between cities and rural communities — one the legislature wants to shift the other way.
"People have gone from a rural setting in Texas to a largely urban setting. With these rules and regulations coming out the way they are, at the local level, there truly is a patchwork quilt of rules and regulations that makes it impossible for people to live their lives, to know how they're governed," Abbott said. "It makes it difficult for Texas to retain its brand as a low-government, low-tax state."