AUSTIN - A one-page proposal floating around the Capitol drastically shifts the balance of power between state and local leaders.

In a swift stroke, it blocks Texas cities from cooking up any new rules that aren’t expressly allowed by state law.

Critics are reaching for new adjectives to describe its impact.

“We call it the super-preemptive bill,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. “It has tremendous implications.”

Most, he said, are negative.

The proposal by Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, may be sweeping but it’s only one of about 70 proposals to lift reins of power from local hands and gather them in Austin.

Others affect matters such as tree trimming, RV parks, gun shows and bans on plastic bags.

Also on the Legislature’s list: a bill forbidding cities to hire lobbyists; another prohibiting cities from using red-light cameras; one forbidding them from regulating the temperature of raw milk products; and another that keeps their hands off small honey producers.

“I’ve never seen this many bills coming after us in one session,” Sandlin said. “I don’t know what to think.”

The genesis of the power play is underground. Lawmakers last week voted to pre-empt local control of gas wells, following a referendum by Denton voters to ban fracking within their city’s limits.

Under the drilling legislation, cities keep only the authority to decide surface issues - set-backs, noise regulations and other aspects related to above-ground operations.

Huffines said the Legislature needs to keep Texas cities in line.

“For too long, liberal political subdivisions have restricted our economic freedom with illegal rules and regulations,” he said in a statement. “We must defend the rule of law before it is too late and our state starts to look like California.”

Huffines added that “illegal rules and regulations threaten the economic prosperity of our state.”

It’s not just Texas lawmakers who worry.

Over the border in Oklahoma, legislators are drawing up a similar bill to preempt local control of gas wells, zoning and rules affecting public water supplies, said Carolyn Stager, executive director of the Oklahoma Municipal League.

“That Denton situation prompted this whole storm across the nation,” she said. “We have the same thing going on.”

Stager said the Oklahoma Legislature’s big-footing confounds the usual approach of conservative lawmakers.

“We have a Republican House that is usually all about personal property rights,” she said. “Personal property rights - all of this is getting lost. From a property perspective, hello!”

While a wave of bills binding local officials may be unprecedented, it isn’t exactly unconstitutional, said Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor.

In Texas, Jillson said, “The municipalities have had a lot of authority historically, but state government has the right to govern municipalities.”

“For most of Texas history, there’s been a tacit agreement: The state gives relatively little money to local municipalities and gives them substantial scope of authority in running their business,” Jillson said. “Now the danger is, the state is saying we’re not going to give you any money or authority to run your own affairs.”

Jillson said Huffines’ proposal may be “a bridge too far” for lawmakers, but he predicted that some of the other prescriptive controls will pass. 

Sandlin compared Texas lawmakers to Goldilocks - the fairytale character who finds one chair too large and another too small before landing in one that’s just right.

In this scenario, the Republican Legislature finds the federal government too large and cities too small. The Statehouse apparently is just the right size for preempting plastic bag bans and other local rules, he said.

Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a political science professor at the University of North Texas in Denton, said the Legislature’s moves to clip cities’ power has little to do with philosophy.

“This is a little secret we learned in political science a while back - ideology trumps everything, including principle,” he said. “Local control is a principled argument, but it’s a means to an end.”

Allen Saxe, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said he finds it ironic that conservatives are working to build a more centralized rule-making process.

“It’s not really ideology,” said Saxe. “It’s plain power politics and your own interest.”

Saxe, a self-proclaimed conservative, said he opposes moving more decision-making to Austin. 

“Why be a mayor or have a city council?” he asked.  

Lonnie Hunt, a spokesman for the Texas Association of Counties, said the proposals shouldn’t affect his members much. In Texas, counties are already operate under stricter limits than cities.

But Hunt, a former Houston County judge, sympathized with the local officials.

“One size does not fit all,” he said. “Anybody can make a mistake, but mistakes at the local level are easier to correct.”

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John Austin covers the Statehouse for CNHI.

 

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