Special Session Ends: Divide-and-Conquer Is Name of the Game Against Cities
In a special session in which eight of the twenty items on the call would have directly impacted Texas cities, six of those eight bills died outright: revenue caps, spending caps, permit super vesting, expedited permitting, cell phone preemption, and bathrooms. A tree bill passed in slightly worse form than the League had agreed to in the regular session, but much better than the outright tree ordinance preemption bill. All that is the good news. The bad news? One item that passed—annexation restrictions on cities in counties over 500,000 population—was quite harmful. The tree and annexation bills are described in full detail elsewhere in this issue.
Both the annexation bill and revenue cap bill were “bracketed” to apply only to certain cities. The revenue cap bill would have applied only to cities over $25 million in maintenance and operations property tax levy, and the annexation bill applies only to cities in counties over 500,000 population (plus additional cities under certain circumstances). These brackets partly explain why the annexation bill passed and the revenue cap bill came close to passage: the Legislature has no problem singling out large cities and the regions around those large cities for harsh treatment.
This trend of divide-and-conquer by city or county size should be disturbing to all cities, large or small. For the larger affected cities, the reason is obvious—they’ve been singled out for bad legislation and probably will be again in the future. But smaller cities shouldn’t feel any sense of relief—it will likely be a matter of time before the brackets of these bills expand to include many if not all of them. Divide-and-conquer can succeed will be the message received by the bills’ authors and supporters this special session.
In accordance with League legislative policy adopted in 2016, TML opposed every version of both bills, regardless of brackets of any kind. The membership has long recognized that we must stand together, or risk getting picked off a few at a time. And to small cities’ credit, some of the fiercest opposition to both bills came from cities that weren’t affected by the bills, both out of a feeling of solidarity with their sister cities and from a recognition that they would likely be the next victim in the process.
Why were the mostly larger cities targeted by these bill brackets? It boils down to one of the reasons cities as whole are being singled out for blame at the Capitol: a desire to politicize our wonderfully non-partisan Texas cities. Some legislators feel the larger urban areas of the state don’t jibe with their own politics, so it’s easy to single them out while protecting cities in the less populous regions. There’s no other way to analyze what happened, and it’s a sad trend. Look for more of these small/large, urban/rural brackets in future sessions.
How do we reverse this dual trend of politicizing Texas cities and the accompanying strategy of divide-and-conquer? The League will study this issue carefully, and appoint interim legislative policy committees to attack this trend head-on in 2018. In the meantime, cities must stay the course of opposing all efforts to handcuff any of our neighboring Texas cities. Potholes aren’t Democratic or Republican, nor are there small-city or big-city potholes. They’re all just potholes, and the non-partisan mayors, councilmembers, and appointed officials who toil ceaselessly to fill them need to be left alone by the Legislature so they can serve their citizens who demand results, not ideology.