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The Demise of Local Control

Survey finds that Texans are likely to let the state take charge.

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Texas State Capitol building in Austin in springtime.
Thinkstock/Getty

If the current political rule of thumb in Texas were “as goes the Republican primary, so goes the state,” then local cities, counties, and school boards are in trouble. Republican voters hold significantly more positive views of the state government than their local governments, and don’t look askew upon the state overruling local entities, as we found in our most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey.

Politicians for years—Republicans in particular—have been invoking “local control” as the antidote for what they describe as an over-reaching federal government. If the state government wasn’t the answer, then the local school board was. But our survey found that the invocation of local control so familiar to Texas politics doesn’t carry much weight with voters. The principle appears to have little gravity with voters beyond an abstract appeal that is easily overruled by the more powerful dispositions in the universe of political attitudes, like partisanship, ideology, and material interest.

Perhaps this is why Governor Greg Abbott, at a recent conservative forum in Corpus Christi, felt free to sweep away the idea that local government knows better what the people want than state officials. Specifically, the governor said, “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.”

Abbott’s comment might be the harshest admonition yet to local authorities struggling to defend their autonomy during a legislative session that seems to be hearing bills on a daily basis that would decrease, rein in, or circumvent “local control” over many issues. In some of the most prominent legislative fights currently underway—from sanctuary cities, the regulation of transgender people’s access to public and school restroom and changing room facilities, to increasing checks on local tax rates—the forces of state sovereignty are mounting an offensive on issues that revolve around the axis of conflict between the authority of state and local governments.

In an effort to assess attitudes about legislative attempts to impose statewide structure on local decision-making, in our February 2017 survey, we asked about the Legislature’s attempts to overturn the actions of local entities. We decided to focus on two scenarios devoid of specific issue context. We used a split sample so that half our respondents received one version of the question and the other half received the other.

The first question was: “Generally speaking, do you approve or disapprove of the Texas Legislature passing laws designed to override measures adopted by local governments?”

Less than a third—29 percent of Texas voters—approved of the Legislature passing laws that would override measures adopted by local governments, 39 percent disapproved, and 32 percent had no opinion. Democrats were more likely to disapprove (57 percent) than were Republicans. That’s not a particularly surprising result given that any restrictions on local control under current circumstances would be enacted by the Republican Legislature and governor. Inversely, 42 percent of Republican voters approved of the state government overriding local governments. Lest you think that self-described conservatives or tea party Republicans might be more likely to defend local autonomy, they didn’t: 43 percent of conservatives and 51 percent of Tea Party Republicans approved of state control over local.

In the other version of the question, we asked: “Generally speaking, do you approve or disapprove of the Texas Legislature passing laws designed to override measures adopted by voters in city and county elections?”

This time, the entity being overturned isn’t a local government, but local voters. Replacing government with voters produced significantly different results in the other, randomly selected half of the sample, with 56 percent expressing disapproval at the Legislature passing laws that override local voters. Only 15 percent of Texans approved in these situations. Among Republicans, 42 percent expressed approval of the Legislature overturning the actions of local governments, only 23 percent approved when the voters themselves were being overturned, with 48 percent disapproving. Among Democrats, only 8 percent approved of overturning the actions of local voters, 63 percent disapproved.

Although Republicans do not have a dismal view of local government, they tend to have a more positive view of state government. For example, among Republicans who approve of the Legislature overturning local measures, 57 percent express a favorable view of local government. This sounds like a lot, but is dwarfed by the 83 percent who hold a favorable view of state government.

Deploying the principle of local control as political rhetoric depends at the very least on there being enough of an audience for such an appeal. Among voters, at least, the principle of local sovereignty appears to have shallow cognitive roots: people attach value to it in the abstract, but it is easily crowded out by other more established attitudes. So “local control” can be both readily applied when it’s consistent with what people already prefer, yet easily discounted when it conflicts with other, more deeply formed attitudes. It’s unlikely that all but a small handful of voters have a strong opinion about what level of government is best for administering government functions, let alone the even more arcane judgment as to what level of government should make decisions on particular issues.

As always, patterns in public attitudes inevitably get incorporated into the strategies of interest groups in state politics. The absence of deep-seated attitudes supporting a principle of “local control” gives organizations and interests promoting a stronger hand for state government room to provide scaffolding for state leaders’ impulses to overrule local decisions. If Republican voters think Uber and Lyft leaving Austin was just another instance of Austin liberals inhibiting free enterprise and innovation, the principle of local control won’t stop them from embracing statewide rule-setting by the Legislature. When Republican voters feel the pinch of rising property tax bills, they are that much more likely to favor the state limiting the locals’ ability to raise tax revenues without voter approval, all things being equal.

Some ideas have longer shelf lives based on more durable appeal than others. Local control as we once knew it has passed its expiration date.

The University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll surveyed 1,200 registered voters. Data was collected February 3 to February 10 and has an overall margin of error of +/- 2.83 percentage points. For the subsamples: 593 Texans were asked about overriding local government, with an overall margin of error of +/- 4.02 percentage points. And 604 respondents were asked about overriding local voters, with an overall margin or error of +/- 3.99 percentage points.  Sampling and data collection were performed by YouGov.

For complete methodological statement, see the Texas Politics Project website.

Jim Henson directs the Texas Politics Project and teaches in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. Joshua Blank manages polling and research for the Texas Politics Project. 

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  • WUSRPH

    Wait till the have to ask Austin to fill a pot-hole.

  • roadgeek

    In theory, I support local control. In practice, I live in Austin, a place where every liberal feel-good social justice idea gets heard, and a good many get put into practice. Latest: $200,000 to help defend illegal aliens against deportations. It’s gotten so bad that I really just enjoy watching the state bash Austin. Illogical? Sure. But a reaction against a city government that constantly grows more intrusive in how I live my life and what I do with my property.

    • Tracyacruz

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    • SpiritofPearl

      So you loved all those plastic bags littering the streets?

      • deanbob

        We can thank the Sierra Club and California environmentalists desire to protect trees for those plastic bags!

        • SpiritofPearl

          Trees? Trees?

          Plastic bags are made from oil.

          • John Johnson

            Dean bob…that went over her head.

          • John Bernard Books

            Usually does….

          • don76550

            Paper bags are made from trees.

  • William Andrew McWhorter

    On the subject of the State government subverting the will of the voters through referendums, it is critically important to consider who is writing those referendums. The specific ballot language is often intentionally confusing, requiring voter outreach and education programs if people are to understand what it is that YES or NO actually means. Some of these votes face subsequent legal challenges that turn out to be successful, but not before there have been huge and irreversible fiscal commitments. That’s a problem (by both political parties), and it’s fair game (for both political parties); however, on the whole I think that it makes perfectly good sense that Democrats ought to be on the defensive because central-city entities and suburban constituencies sometimes get pitted against one another. So it makes sense that this is a Republican-led issue.

    Here’s the thing. Municipalities and many other entities are chartered by the State government. These entities administer governance in accordance with a rather cumbersome framework of state laws that exist because those entities can’t be trusted to function effectively without them. Therefore, if there are abuses of power, it falls upon the State to provide a better framework. If proponents of local control are really serious about that sort of thing, then they ought to be pushing against the prevailing framework…out of principle. That isn’t happening, so I’m suspicious of their motives. This isn’t principled politicking, it’s special-interest politicking.

  • BCinBCS

    James Henson and Joshua Blank, in your article, you inserted the same graph twice. You failed to post the “Legislature Overriding Measures Adopted by Local Government” graph.

    • SpiritofPearl

      Good catch!

  • grobeg

    It is a fallacy to compare the Desire to see the State Government take power back from improper Federal over-reach, to the State using its governance over local municipalities. The design of the US Governing bodies, was State First, with the Federal government acting like an Umbrella. And within the State, the State is still primary, with local bodies within the state operating within the States guidelines. You can’t put the State, in the position of the Federal government when exampling it against Inner state local governing. The State was always meant to be the TOP tier of governing…

    • WUSRPH

      I understand your argument…..but if that is the case why does Article VI, Section 2, of the US Constitution make the federal government supreme over the states? The federal system recognizes that the states and the federal government have different duties and responsibilities, but it makes the decisions, laws, court rulings and treaties with foreign countries “the supreme law of the land” superior to any state law, decision or state constitution. That sure does not sound like the state’s are on top.

    • WUSRPH

      The structure you are describing fits the Articles of Confederation, but not the Constitution…..too many state righists are unable to discern that the new document, the Constitution, was designed to rectify the problems of the Confederation—-most importantly just the kind of structure you are advocating that did not work.

  • John Johnson

    I don’t put much store in surveys and polls any longer, regardless of methodology. Look at our last Prez election and the predictions the “surveys” generated. Turning what is good for Arlington over to a bunch of asleep at the wheel legislators in Timbuktu TX is goofy. Even the ones with district fingers running through Arlington are out of touch with what the majority of our city’s citizens want.

    • WUSRPH

      If they don’t stay in touch with what is going on at the local level they are, first of all, a bad representative and, secondly, a bad politician. A good politician should be almost as aware of what is going on in his district as your city councilmember I am sorry to see that you have such a low quality of representatives. Vote the bums out!

      • John Bernard Books

        Your Tx rep is Twanna Dukes and she was re elected with a 14 count criminal indictment against her. BTW she is busy representing you right now.

  • WUSRPH

    Don’t you just love how those Republicans in the Congress protect the best interests of their individual constituents? Like the US House voting to junk a rule that your investment councilor consider YOUR BEST INTEREST and not his own in providing investment advice……….Sounds like they want all investment councilors to be like Ken Paxton.

    • Adriennecstewart

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  • donuthin2

    Trump agrees to $25 million settlement for the Trump University plaintiffs. I just can’t get over the fact that almost half of us agree with and still support this goober.

    • John Bernard Books

      No what you really can’t get over is less than half of us supported Hillary.

  • pwt7925

    If the voters in Arlington want to waste their money on a revised ballpark and hold tractor pulls in the current one while the rest of the city distentegrates, that is their prerogative, at least until the Legislature decides that it isn’t.

    • John Johnson

      Well, Bozo, since the majority of the citizens in Arlington voted for it, and since the city is on the hook for the bonds, and since the state is not pumping any money into it, I say our legislature has no authority to stick their nose in our business. Where you from? Michigan?

  • don76550

    Municipalities have proven over and over they are totally incapable of passing rational ordinances. They clearly need adult supervision.

    • Bruce Darling

      Austin leads the list of cities most in need of adult supervision.

  • Hugh Everett

    “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

    The Constitution guarantees the sovereignty and authority of the States. There’s no such guarantee for municipalities, although a state’s constitution might include those rights.

    I can’t remember hearing a liberal complain about the federal government trampling on the clearly-defined constitutional rights of the States, but they sure are sensitive about make-believe and imagined rights of municipalities.