Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick dropped the façade Friday. It turns out that the Texas Republican leadership’s war on cities is not just about local taxes, anti-discrimination policies, or sanctuary cities. These policy battles are a partisan fight to erase the last bastion of Democratic control—the big cities of Texas.
On Varney & Co., a week-day talk show on the Fox Business Network, Patrick touted the national gains Republicans made in state legislatures and governor’s offices during the Obama administration. “During Obama’s reign, almost a thousand Democrats were defeated running for the local state Houses and state Senate and governors and lieutenant governors. In fact, out of the 45 lieutenant governors, which I am one of, of course, 32 are Republicans,” Patrick said. “We own the turf state by state, and Texas leads the way. We set the conservative example that other states follow.”
Then, answering an unrelated question from host Stuart Varney, Patrick cast the policy debates between the states and the cities as a partisan fight between Republicans and Democrats:
“People are happy with their governments at the state level. They’re not with their cities. By the way, Stuart, there’s something going on that you really need to focus on. And that is, our cities are still controlled by Democrats. Where do we have all our problems in America? Not at the state level, run by Republicans, but in our cities that are mostly controlled by Democrat mayors and Democrat city councilmen and women. That’s where you see liberal policies, that’s where you see high taxes, where you see high street crimes. Look at New York, look at Chicago, look at…go around the country. So the only place Democrats have control of is our cities and they’re doing a terrible job.”
Varney engaged Patrick briefly in a discussion of President Trump’s immigration policies, but again Patrick brought the issue back around to Democratic mayors. “We passed an end to sanctuary cities in Texas. And again, we’re being sued by Democrat mayors in Texas,” he said. “. . . We have to stop sanctuary cities, secure the borders, and make America great again by having people come over who want to be part of us.”
The crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities, Senate Bill 4, was passed by the Legislature in regular session and will take effect September 1. The law will punish local law enforcement officials who do not fully cooperate with federal immigration requests, while also giving local law enforcement officers the power to ask people they stop to prove their citizenship. So far, the cities of Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, and San Antonio have joined a federal lawsuit filed May 8 by the border town of El Cenizo and the League of United Latin American Citizens, to block the law from taking effect. Although not a party in the lawsuit, the Mexican government also filed a sworn statement with the court asking that the law be blocked.
Still, sanctuary cities are far from the only local defiance the Lege wants to squash. In the current special legislative session, Governor Greg Abbott prioritized several bills to crack down on local government policies, from restricting tax increases and annexation of land in extraterritorial jurisdictions to overriding local ordinances on the cutting of trees. Shortly before the session began, Abbott appeared at a Bell County function and described Austin and Travis County as opponents of freedom. “As you leave Austin and start heading north, you start feeling different,” Abbott said, according to the Austin American-Statesman. “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.”
Although Abbott has never explicitly stated his intentions to defang local government, the discord between the governor and city leaders hasn’t gone unnoticed. Seventeen mayors sent Abbott a letter last month asking for a meeting on the issues he was putting before the Legislature:
Recent reports project that the largest cities in our state will increase in population by at least 50 percent over the next 25 years. People are moving to Texas cities because we are home to strong job markets and places where they want to live and raise their families. To prepare for this rapid growth, we must continue to have the tools to manage our budgets, improve infrastructure, provide critical services like public safety and pass policies reflective of local resident priorities. Harmful proposals such as revenue and spending caps, limiting annexation authority and other measures preempting local development ordinances directly harm our ability to plan for future growth and continue to serve as the economic engines of Texas.
Earlier this week, Abbott met with Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams, Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney, Irving Mayor Rick Stopfer, McKinney Mayor George Fuller, and Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman. Most mayors in Texas are chosen in non-partisan elections, but Price, Williams, Cheney, Fuller, and Zimmerman have past histories as Republicans.
The suburban mayors who met with Abbott told the Dallas Morning News they tried to convince the governor against pursuing a “one-size-fits-all solution.” Mayor Cheney, of Frisco, said his city analysis of the Abbott-Patrick tax plan showed that it actually would have caused the city to have higher taxes over a ten-year period, while Zimmerman, of Sugar Land, said there’s no way to have property tax reform without overhauling the public school finance system. The Republican cities were told by Abbott that a statewide tax cut would not be needed if all cities managed budgets as they did theirs. (To break the code, Republican cities will just have to take a hickey so the statewide Republicans can stick it to the big Democratic cities.)
In the past several election cycles, the only place the Texas Democratic voting strength has been growing is in the major cities. Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, and San Antonio all go Democratic. Last year, Patrick’s son Ryan lost his district judge seat in Houston to a Democrat, who is now presiding over the criminal trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican.
Up to this point, the state’s Republican leadership has been able to portray all of these actions against the cities as a mere public policy dispute. But in his statements on Fox, Patrick laid bare their intention. It’s a partisan fight between the Republicans who control the state and the Democrats who control the cities—and those Republican suburbs might just be collateral damage.