Considering ongoing upheaval by the Texas Legislature, I wasn’t surprised when the mayor of Waco, the county judge and the superintendent of Waco Independent School District all showed up at the Trib to tout an Election Day measure creating a travel-tax surcharge to fund a sweeping, impressively strategic expansion of Extraco Events Center and city and school facilities contiguous to it. Bill by bill, state lawmakers are making it harder and harder for local governing entities to pursue the priorities of their constituents.
The May 6 election measure offers local folks such an opportunity, as duly permitted by the almighty state. Even so, state leaders this legislative session are moving fast to restrict local control in once-unimaginable ways. Consider a few of the disruptive bills now in various states of preparation:
- A bill federalizing local sheriffs and police chiefs and criminalizing all law enforcement who balk in toeing the line in enforcing immigration laws, including pressing people about their citizenship without probable cause. So much for peace officers stretched thin and now expected to do the federal government’s job too. So much for help from nervous immigrant communities in solving local crimes.
Oh, and welcome lawsuits aplenty when violations of people’s civil rights and Fourth Amendment protections get the police sued for racial profiling.
- Legislation cutting up to half the amount by which cities, counties and other entities can raise property taxes without a special election. Meanwhile, unfunded state mandates continue to add expense to these local governments.
- A bill denying cities even the right to ban single-use plastic bags, legislation vigorously opposed at the grassroots level by folks such as Bruce Huff, a local veteran who hasn’t let multiple sclerosis keep him from leading an anti-litter campaign where volunteers hit neighborhoods and pick up litter. Plastic bags are often discarded as litter, blow with the wind and become caught up in trees and shrubs. Even some ranchers support bans because of cattle that consume this plastic and die as a result.
- Legislation defanging city ordinances restricting payday lending such as one passed in Waco last year to battle predatory loans. Payday-lending lobbyists rule.
“It’s ironic that what ordinarily would be considered a conservative legislature is taking positions that aren’t traditional conservative positions,” Mayor Kyle Deaver said. “Conservatism traditionally has meant control closer to the people. It’s disturbing to me all the limits that this legislature — particularly the Senate — is trying to place on cities and counties and local government. The property-tax rollback issue gives you great concern and you wonder what unintended consequences might come from that.”
I suggested this tax-rollback bill wouldn’t impact the town council much, given it’s unlikely to raise taxes more than, say, 4 or 5 percent any given year.
“Not now,” he said. “But you just worry about the future. And the more you lose control over your ability to address local issues — I mean, we heard yesterday from our police chief about his desire for enhanced staffing. If the council decides that’s the right thing, where do we find the funding for that? What services do we give up for that because you can end up in a situation where your hands are tied. That just gives me a lot of concern. I think the people of Waco and McLennan County will tell their elected officials what they want and we’re much more easily accessible and closer to the ground on those issues (than state legislators are).”
County Judge Scott Felton is blunt. Lawmakers, he says, seem all ears when they meet with local leadership about such concerns, then march to other drummers in the heat of legislative sessions.
“You need to be eye to eye with them,” he said. “It’s a different conversation, though, than when they get into Austin and get whipped up into a frenzy. Maybe they’re too focused on getting something passed and all the politics. Being political sometimes interferes with common sense and making good decisions. Perfect example is [Sen. Brian] Birdwell has pushed these revenue caps [on local taxes], but I really haven’t seen a whole lot of activity — or he certainly hasn’t reported to us — what he’s doing to limit all these [unfunded] mandates.”
If the county judge is looking forward to any detailed accounting about all that lawmakers are doing to help Texas cities and counties, I wouldn’t hold my breath.