By Wayne Caswell, Vice Chairman, Alliance of Progressive Voters
The GOP-controlled Texas Legislature has been attacking local control with the same fierceness that once was reserved for criminals, and Governor Greg Abbott has been leading a national trend that must stop. He even suggests that states should ban cities from having regulatory powers at all.
Abbott apparently believes in The Goldilocks Rule: “Federal control is big and bad. Local control is bad. State control is just right.” It’s all about power.
According to the Houston Chronicle, he wants lawmakers to “set spending caps on local governments, reform property taxes in a way that could force budget cuts, and limit the ability of cities to control annexation, tree-cutting, texting while driving, [ride-sharing services, business regulation, plastic grocery bags,] construction permits, bathroom access, even the collection of union dues in government paychecks.”
Over a dozen other states with Republican control have joined in this attack with limits on minimum wage rates, local gun controls, multibillion-dollar transportation projects, and even issues such as allowing the resettlement of Syrian refugees.
State officials point to regulatory uniformity, but political scientists insist that party politics is a factor, because cities are more liberal at heart. That’s why Ramona Thompson picked Local Control as one of the top issues of her campaign.
The City of Denton saw the effects of this attack on local control a few years ago. For over a decade, oil and gas companies had drilled more than 200 fracking wells in Denton, but public attitudes gradually shifted as people learned more about the potential health and environmental effects of this technique of extracting natural gas from shale rock. As developers drilled wells near schools, homes, and a hospital, residents became more concerned about air and water contamination – so much so that they launched a campaign to ban fracking in their city.
The activists were vastly outspent by oil and gas companies who falsely argued that fracking opposition was an attempt to protect Russia’s share of the global natural gas market. But the activists persisted and got the ban placed put on the ballot for a vote.
It wasn’t even close, and Denton became the first Texas city to ban fracking. This was an inspiring victory for grassroots activism and local democracy, but the win didn’t last long. Industry lawyers sued the next day to prevent the ban from going into effect, and then they took their case to state lawmakers, where the argument was that Denton voters lacked the technical sophistication, and that such decisions should be left to industry and government “experts.”
In the end, Texas lawmakers preempted the authority of local governments to regulate, and Governor Abbot quickly signed the bill into law, completely ignoring a white paper submitted by the City of Denton arguing its case. It’s already had an effect on economic growth, as Yvonne and I noticed when looking for a senior living community in the Dallas area to be close to our son.
We were planning to move from the Austin suburb of Cedar Park and considered three communities: Heritage Ranch in McKinney, Robson Ranch in Denton, and Frisco Lakes in Frisco. Robson Ranch had the best home value per square foot, and we liked the community activities and amenity center, but as we researched homes for sale, Yvonne saw one with the floor plan we wanted. But while looking at the photos, she noticed some weird equipment across the street. They were doing fracking there – right on the property of Robson Ranch – and that killed the deal for us. It explained why the community was so isolated with no businesses or restaurants around.
After that experience, we bought an existing home in Frisco Lakes and have been extremely happy here. And we’ve both become active in local politics.
Senate Bill 4, which passed in May, got national attention because it’s not just a vicious anti-immigrant law but also another attack on local control and the power of mostly-blue cities to determine their future with policies that reflect their community needs.
Local Progress, a national network of local lawmakers, led the fight against Senate Bill 4 with help from Austin City Councilmembers Greg Casar, Delia Garza, and Ann Kitchen; Dallas Councilmember Philip Kingston, El Paso County Commissioner David Stout; Houston Councilmember Robert Gallegos; and San Antonio Councilmember Rey Saldaña.
But in the end, SB 4 passed and was signed into law, a political victory for Republicans who have had a history of arguing for States Rights. They must now be feeling threatened by the growing numbers of blacks, Hispanics, Asian immigrants, Muslims, nonbelievers, and gays who tend to vote for Democrat candidates. They also worry about the shifting demographics of cities that have become more liberal over time. And because that shift is nationwide, their fight against local control has become national too. SB 4 was a bellwether example, but the fight against SB 4 is not yet over, and will not be until this law is fully repealed.
Texas Could Turn Blue
Resent results from a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll show how fragile the GOP control of Texas is, and the opportunity that Democrats have, especially after a Virginia Wave that was a rejection of hatred, misogyny, racism, bigotry and the divisiveness that characterizes the Trump administration.
Republicans have to either play to the ultra-conservative Trump base or shift more toward the middle, and that becomes a tricky dance when there is an attractive candidate running in opposition.
For the first time in may years Democrats are offering qualified candidates for almost all seats, and the 2018 election is the best chance Democrats in Texas have had to take back power since Ann Richards.
While the Republican strategy is to use fear and hatred of our differences to divide and conquer, we will embrace the idea that more can be accomplished by working together and ensuring equal rights and opportunities for everyone. I ask you to join Ramona in her efforts to unite and empower!
About the Author
Wayne Caswell lives in Frisco Lakes in the same Del Webb community as Ramona and has worked closely with her as Vice Chairman for the Democratic group she founded just over a year ago. He’s a retired IBM technologist, market strategist, futurist, consumer advocate, and founding editor of Modern Health Talk.
Texas’ War on Local Control is Part of National Trend (Texas Observer)
Texas not alone in its efforts to limit local control (Houston Chronicle)
GASLAND (part-1) is an HBO documentary about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). It gives insight into the concerns Denton residents had when they voted to ban fracking in their city.
GASLAND (part-2) is a followup film to argue that the gas industry’s portrayal of natural gas as a clean and safe alternative to oil is a myth and that fracked wells inevitably leak over time, contaminating water and air, hurting families, and endangering the earth’s climate with the potent greenhouse gas, methane. In addition, the film looks at how the powerful oil and gas industries “contaminating our democracy”.
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