The Worst Little Statehouse in Texas
Where the Pygmies Have Gone Deaf
In 1964, journalist Willie Morris quoted a member of the Texas House as saying the state Capitol “was built for giants and inhabited by pygmies.” In the intervening years, the faces have changed, but not much else. The one-party Democratic Texas has been replaced effectively by one-party Republican Texas. Restroom segregation, tight-fisted state spending, mandates on cities, and a select committee to study how to pay for public schools—we’ve been there before. No matter how many oil wells we drill or shiny glass skyscrapers we build, some things remain consistent.
There was, however, a remarkable difference this year—a disdain for the community leaders of Texas. On a host of issues, Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s Republican Senate offered a deaf ear to the state’s business leaders, police chiefs, and locally elected public officials. The 2017 legislative sessions will be remembered for divisive fundamentalism, a miserly disinterest in investing in the state’s future, and, more than anything, an arrogance that the 181 lawmakers elected to the pink granite building in Austin are somehow smarter than the other 19,198 city, county, and school elected officials in Texas. Without the federal government of President Obama as a foil, the state’s leadership suddenly turned on us—or perhaps itself. As Morris wrote five decades ago, “One‐party complacency, and an uncommon tendency to attack Washington for all ills, have engendered a lingering suspicion of government of any kind.”
Almost twenty years after Morris made his observations on the Texas Capitol, another observer of our state, Larry L. King, visited the Pink Dome for a CBS special called The Best Little Statehouse in Texas, a title playing off the Broadway success he had achieved with a musical about a brothel outside of LaGrange. The year was 1981, and the producers got to wondering what kind of America President Ronald Reagan wanted, ultimately deciding it was Texas. “What we’ve seen is not peculiar to Texas—other mortals in other legislatures in other states make mistakes and cut deals and reach their own handy compromises,” King mused in the show’s opening. “In their own ambitions, the needs and desires of the people may not always get top priority. Perhaps my Texans are a bit more colorful, a bit rawer—but the process, alas, is much the same in your state and in your neighbor’s.”
And that is exactly why what happened in the Texas Legislature this year is so important. Texas is the trend-setter for the conservative states of America, an L-shaped geographical region linking the Old South to the Old West—the Rust Belt starting to squeeze its way in. As the demography-is-destiny Democrats sat smugly on the coasts for the past ten years, Republicans captured the statehouses in the heartland. Republicans dominate 33 states, and already we are seeing other states engaging in the same effort to crush local control as is happening in Texas: Michigan, Illinois and Ohio, plus Iowa, with state pre-emption of local control upsetting some Republicans as an abandonment of a basic principle of the party.
Some of this is purely political. Pew Charitable Trusts earlier this year reported that mayors who ran as Democrats or have been affiliated with the Democratic party command 78 percent of the nation’s largest cities. “People are happy with their governments at the state level. They’re not with their cities,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said on the Fox Business network. “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.”
But the friction with city leaders seems to be spreading. During this session about 1,500 school superintendents and board members who wanted $1.2 billion in funding, which was included in a House bill, were ignored by Patrick’s Senate in both the regular and special session. The mayors of Texas’s eighteen most populous cities asked Governor Greg Abbott to drop his support for automatic property tax rollback elections for city and county governments, which never happened. Abbott took credit for grants to police departments for body armor, but did not listen when the state’s police chiefs argued against sanctuary cities or the proposal to restrict the restroom access for transgender people. Speaking of the bathroom bill, supported by Patrick and Abbott, only the House leadership under Joe Straus seemed to pay any attention to hundreds of business leaders in Texas who opposed it.
In the late 1950s, Dallas City Attorney H.P. Kucera told a gathering of municipal officials in Austin that the Legislature was encroaching on “cities rights.” Kucera said that “if the cities and the citizens do not wake up to what this domination by Washington and Austin leads to, we will be faced with the loss of control of our local affairs.” As the Bible says, nothing is new under the sun. Earlier this summer, Abbott attended the grand opening of Toyota’s North American headquarters in Plano, declaring that “the Texas model is proof that limited government secures economic liberty and encourages unlimited opportunity.” Only bills restricting municipal regulation of tree removal and annexation made it past the House to Abbott’s desk, but Republican-leaning cities in the Dallas suburbs were targeted, along with Democratic cities, for state assaults on local control.
Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney was among a group of mayors from Republican cities to meet with Abbott to show how the tax rollback election he was backing would harm the city finances. Cheney told me the city this year is cutting its tax rate, granting an extra 7.5 percent homestead exemption and raising the exemption for senior citizens. But under the automatic rollback provisions of the failed Senate Bill 1, Frisco would have faced either cutting police officers from the budget or spending $200,000 to hold a rollback election over its tax rates. He said Abbott seemed sympathetic, but if it wasn’t for big-spending cities it would not be necessary to have legislation that also would punish cities like Frisco.
Plano is among five cities in Texas with a non-discrimination ordinance that covers sexual preference, though not gender identity. Of the five cities with such ordinances, Plano and Fort Worth routinely vote overwhelmingly Republican. Mayor Harry LaRosiliere said the Plano ordinance was important to attracting national corporations to relocate in his city. Last year, Money magazine named Plano as the third best place to live and work in America. “You know, we’ve created about 30,000 jobs in Plano my first term as mayor. Toyota, FedEx, Liberty Mutual, JP Morgan, Boeing, Fannie May— all those companies chose to come to Plano and three reasons they say they’ve come: we have a safe city, it’s one of the safest cities in America. We have a fantastic school system and we deliver quality city services that translate into quality of life. To assault us as the problem, I think is pretty disappointing,” LaRosiliere told me. “I have to say, when you look at what’s being focused on versus what I know people are concerned with, there’s an absolute disconnect.”
LaRosiliere told me that he loves being mayor but considers politics to be the “dirty diaper” part of the job and too often the political side is too “philosophical” over “practical.” However, LaRosiliere said through the regular session and the special session that just ended, there was one state leader who listened to local government. “I want to take this moment to highlight that the true leader of Texas is speaker of the House, Joe Straus. He exemplifies what a leader is. He’s thoughtful, he’s careful, he’s measured. He’s balanced and I’m so thankful for his leadership. He’s ushered us through some— certainly, he’s proven to be a friend of cities and someone who listens before he makes a decision.”
Straus took the heat for his fellow House members on issues like the bathroom bill and local tax rollbacks desired by the Senate, making sure those issues did not come to a vote. Perhaps Straus proved Willie Morris wrong—they’re not all pygmies.