In Austin, Texas, Republican Lawmakers Promote State Governing Power

May 4, 2017
Originally published on May 4, 2017 4:37 pm
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This next story is about a change in a traditionally conservative belief that when it comes to the exercise of political power, local control is better. That's definitely been true up till now in Texas, which sued the Obama administration over and over. But now Republican leaders in the state capital are saying something different - that state control is better than local control, especially if the locals are Democrats. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has the report.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: The way Chris Alexander, mayor of Fort Stockton, tells it, it used to be there were so many of those paper-thin, non-biodegradable plastic bags caught up in the region's mesquite bushes, they'd practically become the official flag of Fort Stockton, thousands and thousands every place you looked anywhere you drove, making a racket in the west Texas wind.

CHRIS ALEXANDER: In west Texas, we have a lot of bushes that tend to have thorns on them. And if the bags are out blowing around and they get caught up in these bushes, it's just a horrible sight. It's - they're just everywhere.

GOODWYN: It's been 10 years since Fort Stockton passed its plastic bag ban, and Mayor Alexander says they're pretty happy with the answer. No more bags blowing in the wind, friend. But now the state legislature is targeting these local bag bans.

ALEXANDER: My worry is that our scenery around our roads where most of these bags end up blowing around from will just be decimated. We'll be back to square one in no time.

GOODWYN: State laws revoking local bag and fracking bans are just the start. The legislature is targeting municipal regulations concerning tree cutting, Airbnb-type rentals, LGBT protections, Uber regulations and, last but certainly not least, laws that constrain local law enforcement's cooperation with federal immigration authorities. With the Texas legislature and governor loathe to regulate generally, city governments across the state have begun stepping into the void. But the Republican leadership in Austin is determined to show Texas cities just who's boss.

BENNETT SANDLIN: It's a complete reversal. Local control used to be a good thing. Now they want to control the locals.

GOODWYN: Bennett Sandlin is the executive director of the Texas Municipal League, which represents about 1,150 Texas cities and towns. Sandlin says his membership is alarmed at what they view as a legislative power grab.

SANDLIN: So all of a sudden, you've got what I call the Goldilocks version of government. The federal government's big and bad. Cities are small and bad. And somehow the state magically gets it just right.

GOODWYN: Texas Governor Greg Abbott is a good example. As state attorney general, Abbott sued the Obama administration more than 30 times to oppose, quote, "federal overreach." But now as governor, Abbott is just as focused on resisting Texas' local politicians. In a speech in Corpus Christi, Abbott urged the state legislature to pass one overarching state law that effectively neuters local laws. James Quintero is a director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the influential conservative think tank in Austin. Quintero agrees state control should trump local control because city officials are often too liberal.

JAMES QUINTERO: What you're seeing happening in Texas is we are being Californianized (ph). What I think conservatives have come to realize within the last several years is that local control is a good policy tool, but it is not the end goal. The end goal is the preservation and promotion of life, liberty and property rights.

GOODWYN: But not all Republicans are convinced that there should be one law that gives state lawmakers carte blanche. Republican State Senator Robert Nichols from east Texas is a former city councilman and small town mayor. He's wary of a law which would give the legislature the power to dictate to Texas cities on issues of nearly every stripe.

ROBERT NICHOLS: The problem with having cookie cutters is if it's a bad cookie, you're going to make an awful lot of bad cookies.

GOODWYN: Last week, after an emotionally fraught all-night debate, the Texas House passed a strict sanctuaries bill that, among other things, encourages local law enforcement officers to inquire about immigration status during routine traffic stops. Local police chiefs and sheriffs who resist this new law could be punished with criminal charges and jail time. The bill is headed to Governor Abbott's desk where he's indicated he will sign it. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.