Abbott’s War on Local Government
On tree ordinances and other subversive things cities do.
“Wars don’t just go away, they are only postponed to someone else’s advantage.”
Half a millennium has passed since Niccolò Machiavelli wrote those words, but they rang true at the Texas Capitol this week. Texas House Speaker Joe Straus challenged Governor Greg Abbott on the agenda of the upcoming special legislative session, demonstrating that he has no intention of surrendering on the contentious issues that tanked the regular session.
When Abbott called the special session for July 18, he tried to take command by declaring that he would not add anything to the agenda until the Senate passed some agency renewal bills, which Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick used to force the session in the first place. Abbott said he would only add other items to the session call after those agency bills had passed. Then, and only then, would he add Patrick’s priorities: the bathroom bill, school vouchers, and restrictions on city and county governments to restrain property tax increases.
Postponing Machiavelli’s war, Straus told a gathering of the Texas Association of School Boards on Wednesday that he remains opposed to the bathroom bill and private school vouchers, and that he believes the only true property tax reform will come from overhauling the public school finance system. “This is a defining moment for public education in Texas, and we cannot squander it,” Straus said.
While Straus is taking his war statewide, Abbott is going local. Kings and politicians have known for centuries that the best way to rally your people is to have a common enemy. Sometimes that means taking on geopolitical enemies, but there have been wars on hate, wars on poverty, wars on drugs, and even wars on war. In his special session agenda, Abbott might as well have declared a war on local government—especially Austin’s.
The assault, as contained in the bills Abbott promised to add to the special session agenda, was so obvious that the Houston Chronicle declared him, “Comrade Abbott,” who “laid out an agenda that would make a centralized government commissar downright jealous.” They continued, “Gone are the days when the Republican Party of Texas could be counted on to defend local control. No longer do Texas conservatives believe that government closest to the people is the best kind of government. Instead we’ve witnessed the emergence of a political movement dedicated to stealing power away from local voters and moving it to Austin, where big money donors have created a one-stop shop to get what they want out of government.”
Although most of the policies Abbott wants to see enacted affect local control across the state, Abbott’s poster child for the evils of local government is the capital city—sometimes referred to by conservatives as the People’s Republic of Austin. Abbott promised at a Bell Country Republican dinner that he will not allow Austin to “Californiaize the Lone Star State” with liberal policies. As reporter Jonathan Tilove quoted Abbott: “As you leave Austin and start heading north, you start feeling different,” Abbott told the dinner audience. “Once you cross the Travis County line, it starts smelling different. And you know what that fragrance is? Freedom. It’s the smell of freedom that does not exist in Austin, Texas.”
But apparently Abbott felt free enough to pull a George Washington on trees in Austin. But in Abbott’s version, the cherry tree and hatchet are replaced with a pecan tree and a bulldozer. The story goes back to 2011, when Abbott wanted to take down a pecan tree on his Austin property when he was attorney general. That’s when he ran into Austin’s heritage tree ordinance, which protects specific types of trees with certain trunk diameters. He told WBAP radio that Austin wanted to stop him. “I had a house. I wanted to cut down a very common pecan tree in my yard,” Abbott told WBAP. “And the city of Austin told me, ‘No.’ I could not cut it down. And I had to pay money to the city of Austin to add more trees to my yard because I wanted to cut down one very common tree that was in a bad location.”
In the radio interview, Abbott called Austin’s heritage tree ordinance “socialistic,” but it appears that Abbott’s construction crew did not follow a plan to protect several trees on his property. When Politifact Texas checked Abbott’s statements against city records, it found that Abbott had never been denied permission to cut down several trees on his property.
Even as the news focuses on Abbott’s personal problems with trees, the Dallas Morning News has been reporting on incidents of trees being removed or over-pruned in the city without proper permits. One headline stated that “butchered trees offer ‘horrific’ peek”of a dystopian libertarian world without tree ordinances.
Just to get an idea of how many “socialist” cities there are in Texas, I downloaded this list of tree ordinances from the Texas Chapter of International Arboriculture: Abilene, Allen, Austin, Bedford, Bunker Hill Village, Carrollton, Cedar Hill, Colleyville, Columbus, Coppell,Dickenson, Duncanville, Frisco, Grapevine, Helotes, Hewig Village, Hillshire Village, Houston, Hunters Creek Village, Ingleside, Kennedale, La Porte, Lake Dallas, Lancaster, League City, Little Elm, Lockhart,Mansfield, McKinney, Mesquite, North Richland Hills, Oak Point, Orange, Paris, Pearland, Pflugerville,Roanoke, Rockwall, Round Rock, Rowlett, Sachse, San Antonio, San Marcos, Seabrook, Shenandoah,Sunset Valley, The Colony, Weatherford, West Lake Hills
But trees aren’t Abbott’s only target when it comes to local control. Abbott is advocating automatic property tax rollback elections and spending caps for cities and counties; legislation to overturn local non-discrimination ordinances that protect the LGBT community as well as veterans; local ordinances barring the use of mobile phones in motor vehicles; limits on cities annexing adjacent property into the city limits; and support for statewide requirements on cities to speed up issuing permits.
The Texas Municipal League has taken exception with Abbott’s proposals. “From proposed revenue caps, to spending caps, to tree ordinances, to texting while driving, and more, no one has ever proposed such sweeping restrictions on local voters having a voice in shaping the character of their communities. Seventy-four percent of Texans live in our 1,215 towns and cities and the decisions they have made at the local level have put Texas cities at the top of the nation in success. Stifling their voices through an all-powerful, overreaching state government is a recipe for disaster.”
Meanwhile, Abbott signed into law the state’s $217 billion, two-year budget this week while vetoing $120 million in line items. “I am once again signing a budget that addresses the most pressing challenges faced by our state,” Abbott said. “This budget funds a life-saving overhaul of Child Protection Services, continues to fund the state’s role in securing our border, and ensures that the workforce of today and tomorrow have the resources they need to keep Texas’ economy growing and thriving. Lastly, this budget restrains state-controlled spending below the growth in the state’s estimated population and inflation.”
The Texas Observer noted that one of those line item vetoes was for a $5 million program to protect people who have been put under court-ordered guardianships: “In a pilot program over the last two years, state auditors have reviewed more than 17,000 cases in 18 counties and found that more than half the cases are out of compliance with state law, missing reports from guardians appointed by a judge to look after an elderly or incapacitated person.” The author of the legislation, Senator Judith Zaffirini said she was “flabbergasted” by the veto and had not gotten any warning that it was coming.