By guest writer Bennett Sandlin
Destroying city neighborhoods one step at a time requires too much effort. So Texas governor Greg Abbott wants one sweeping state law to ban city residents from having a say in protecting health, safety and property values in their communities.
While the state legislature is debating dozens of bills to overturn local ordinances and voter-approved referendums, Abbott said last week: “I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says across the board, the state is going to preempt local regulations, is a superior approach”.
The governor said this scorched-earth approach is “more elegant”. Maybe he meant more regal or more tyrannical.
Nearly 28 million people live in Texas now. Eighty-five per cent, more than 23.6 million of us, live in urban areas that cover about four per cent of the state’s land area. That’s a lot of people living very close together.
As cities have grown larger and more crowded, people have insisted upon community rules that protect their safety, health and property values.
Local zoning rules protect your home value by preventing your neighbor from putting a toxic-waste dump next door or putting a strip club next to your child’s daycare center. Local health regulations and inspections give customers confidence that food is safe, enabling restaurants to flourish.
There is nothing new about cities adopting rules that reflect the will of their voters, nor about special interests running to the state legislature when they can’t get a city to conform to their desires.
When Abbott and special interests complain about “a patchwork quilt of local regulations”, what they are saying is that the convenience of big businesses – usually out-of-state corporations – is more important than Texans’ desire for a voice in shaping the character of their community.
In an Austin election last year, voters spoke clearly that they wanted tough criminal-background checks on ride-sharing drivers. They wanted assurance of safety when they hail a ride.
Several ride-sharing companies now flourish under those rules but two others, Uber and Lyft, are spending millions of dollars on Austin lobbyists to persuade the state legislature to run over the voters in that and other Texas cities.
In Fort Stockton, ranchers were alarmed about plastic grocery bags, blown by the west Texas wind, threatening their livestock feeders and covering their fences. They asked their city leaders to ban the plastic bags and the community is happy with the result. Citizens in other cities from Kermit to Laredo have done the same.
In neighborhoods across the state, people are waking up – in the middle of the night – to discover the home next door has been converted into a party destination right out of the movie Animal House. Responding to the concerns of their citizens, city councils are adopting local rules about short-term rentals to protect property values and the character of residential neighborhoods.
Have these cities suddenly gone out of control? Have Texans suddenly decided to trample on liberty and freedom? That’s ridiculous. They simply want some common-sense rules to protect their families, their homes and their neighborhoods.
Year after year, Texas cities lead the nation in the number of companies and people moving in. Clearly, the way that our cities are operating is friendly and welcoming to businesses. And countless businesses ranging from Dairy Queen to Walmart have proliferated across the state, adapting to the different local rules and regulations of many different towns and cities.
But a handful of companies say all Texans must conform to the way they want to run their businesses and they are intent upon using their money and their lobby power in Austin to legislate us into submission.
Texans don’t want to be told they have to conform to one way of thinking or living – whether it comes from Washington or from the governor’s office in Austin. We are proud that our state is unlike any of the others.
In the only state that was once an independent nation, Texans have always celebrated the unique character of our people, culture and heritage, as reflected in our more than 1,200 cities, every one of which is proudly unique.
Texans love being different and debating our differences. Whether it’s burnt orange or maroon, sweetened or unsweetened, red salsa or green, there’s not just one way of being Texan. If we feel warm and comfortable under a patchwork quilt, companies who seek
to do business here – and our governor – should recognize and respect that.
Bennett Sandlin is executive director of Texas Municipal League, an association of 1,153 cities throughout the state.