Cathy McMullen became a fracking refugee in 2009. The part-time home health-care nurse had been living on an eleven-acre spread near Decatur, forty minutes north of Fort Worth, where she fostered rescue dogs and tended a peach and plum orchard. Her rural idyll was shattered in 2008 when a company called Aruba Petroleum began drilling a natural gas well about two thousand feet from her property. The fracking boom was going strong, and McMullen’s land sat atop the Barnett Shale, a five-thousand-square-mile geological formation stretching across North Texas. At one point, McMullen counted 82 trucks lined up outside her home, loaded with water, sand, and fracking chemicals.
McMullen didn’t own the mineral rights to her land, which meant she couldn’t stop Aruba from drilling. She received no compensation for the noxious odors, incessant noise, and other inconveniences of living next to a fracking site. So she sold her property and moved thirty minutes east to Denton, a quiet college town of around 150,000. McMullen bought a hundred-year-old farmhouse with an old-fashioned front porch, a big yard for dogs, and, most important, no gas wells nearby. But soon after she moved in, a company called Range Resources applied to the Denton City Council for permits to frack three wells near a neighborhood park. When the council approved the request, McMullen got mad. Then she got political. “I had been through the fracking process,” she said. “I knew how brutal it was.”
Five years later, thanks to the efforts of McMullen and a band of fellow activists, Denton voters approved an ordinance banning fracking inside city limits—the first such ban in Texas. Although the local activists were outspent ten to one by oil and gas companies, which claimed the ordinance would hobble the city’s economy, the measure passed with 59 percent of the vote. But the fight wasn’t over. The morning after the election, the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Texas General Land Office sued the city to prevent the ban from taking effect, arguing that it deprived the owners of Denton’s mineral rights—just 1 percent of which belonged to Denton residents—from profiting from those rights.
While the lawsuits were making their way through the courts, the Texas Legislature decided that more drastic action was needed. In 2015, Republican representative Drew Darby, of San Angelo, authored a bill to give the state exclusive jurisdiction to regulate oil and gas; it passed with a bipartisan majority. Governor Greg Abbott, who was serving his first year in office, signed the bill into law, touting it as a way to avoid having a “patchwork quilt of regulations that differ from region to region, differ from county to county or city to city.”
Killing the Denton fracking ban was just one of the first shots in what has become a Republican war against local control in Texas. Over the past eight years, the GOP-dominated Legislature has passed so-called “preemption” bills that forbid cities from enacting tree preservation ordinances, installing red-light cameras, or regulating rideshare companies. It has restricted the ability of cities to annex adjacent areas, cut law enforcement budgets, or increase property taxes. In this year’s session, the Lege is considering at least half a dozen Republican-sponsored bills that would limit the ability of cities to regulate big things—such as their own elections—and smaller things, such as the use of gas stoves and the number of chickens Texans are allowed to keep on their residential property. Republican representative Jared Patterson, of Frisco, has introduced a bill that would place the city of Austin under the direct control of the Texas Legislature.
Perhaps most alarming to advocates of local control is the sweeping House Bill 2127, filed by Republican representative Dustin Burrows, of Lubbock, which would grant the state exclusive authority over any activities covered by Texas’s agriculture, finance, insurance, natural resources, and occupations codes. (A companion measure, Senate Bill 814, was filed by Republican senator Brandon Creighton, of Conroe.) If the legislation passes, Texas cities and counties may no longer be able to adopt ordinances related to door-to-door sales, employment discrimination, music-festival safety, predatory lending practices, overgrown lots, or uncontrolled burns, among many other issues. Bennett Sandlin, the executive director of the Texas Municipal League, a nonprofit that advocates for cities and counties, described HB 2127 as a “super-preemption bill” and said: “When you take an entire code and just say cities can’t operate in this sphere, that seems risky to me.”
It may be risky, but it’s not surprising. The erosion of local authority has been a hallmark of Abbott’s tenure as governor. In January 2015, shortly before taking office, he delivered a speech to the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation in which he laid out his rationale for greater state control. “Texas is being California-ized,” Abbott said, “and you may not even be noticing it. This is being done at the city level with bag bans, fracking bans, tree-cutting bans.”
Two years later, after telling a conservative audience that the state should consider issuing a “ban across the board” on municipal regulations, the governor called a special session of the Legislature to try to pass bills that would have capped local spending, overridden local permitting processes, and revised local property-tax rules. The Houston Chronicle editorial board described it as “an agenda that would make a centralized government commissar downright jealous.”
Abbott has also used executive orders to overrule local control. In July of 2020, months into the COVID-19 pandemic, he issued an order requiring Texans to wear masks in most public places. The following year, he rescinded it and issued another order prohibiting municipalities from issuing their own mask or vaccine mandates. One month before the 2020 election, he prohibited counties—no matter the sizes of their voting populations—from offering more than one drop box for ballots. Abbott hasn’t always needed to take direct action: the local bans on plastic bags that he called out in 2015 were overturned in 2018 by the state Supreme Court, and last year Texas Transportation Commission members, appointed by the governor, blocked a voter-approved plan in San Antonio to landscape a major street and expand sidewalks and bike paths. (Abbott turned down a request to be interviewed for this story.)
With strong support among Republican lawmakers for preemption bills, however, Abbott hasn’t needed to rely too heavily on executive action. In 2019, Republican House speaker Dennis Bonnen was caught on tape ridiculing local officials in a conversation with representative Burrows and right-wing activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, who was secretly recording the conversation. “Any mayor, county judge that was dumbass enough to come meet with me, I told them with great clarity, my goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the Legislature for cities and counties,” Bonnen can be heard telling Burrows. “I hope the next session is even worse,” Burrows responds. After Sullivan released the recording, Bonnen apologized for his statement and professed, on Twitter, “great respect & admiration for our city & county officials.” (Bonnen later announced he would not seek reelection because of disparaging remarks about his fellow legislators that were also caught on the same tape.)
The Republican drive to centralize power in Austin represents a marked departure from the traditional conservative principles of local control and limited government. “Our state should not be doing anything that cities can do for themselves,” said former Republican state senator Kel Seliger, who represented parts of West Texas and the Panhandle for eighteen years before retiring in January. Seliger voted against many of the state’s preemption bills, including the one preventing cities from installing red-light cameras. “I don’t like red-light cameras any more than anyone else,” he said, “but it’s up to a locality to do. In Lubbock they had them, and then people passed a petition to remove them.”
Wayne Thorburn has been active in the Republican Party of Texas since 1960 and served as executive director from 1977 to 1983. Back then, he said, “the philosophical or ideological thing that motivated people to work for the Republican Party was a general conservative political philosophy that emphasized local government, limited government. The main thrust of it was future oriented.” The GOP’s strongholds at the time were Houston and Dallas, while Democrats dominated rural Texas. The past few decades have seen a geographic realignment. Democrats now control four of the state’s five biggest cities, while Republican support is increasingly concentrated in rural areas. “These are people who are not upwardly mobile,” Thorburn said of today’s Republican-base voters. “They’re not looking to the future. They want to go back again to some perceived way of life, whether it be the Protestant work ethic, whether it be white society, whether it be small-town [life], whatever.”
As the GOP’s constituency changed from predominantly urban to predominantly rural, so did its priorities. Business-friendly Texas Republicans such as George H. W. Bush, who was famously reluctant to talk about his religious faith, gave way to outspoken Christian nationalists such as Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton. The goal of today’s Republican Party, Thorburn said, is “using the power of the state to advance these cultural values. It’s totally different from the small-government, free-enterprise conservative values that the party represented fifteen years ago.”
Legally, the state has every right to preempt local ordinances, said University of Texas adjunct law professor Randall Erben, a longtime Republican power broker who served as Abbott’s first legislative director. Under the Texas constitution, “cities and counties are creations of the state,” Erben told me. “They have whatever powers the state deigns to grant them—and it does grant them powers in the Local Government Code. But the constitution also says that no local ordinance may be in conflict with state law.”
Texas cities are classified in two ways. General-law cities and towns, which typically have fewer than five thousand residents, can only exercise the powers explicitly granted by the state. Once a city’s population exceeds five thousand, it can hold a vote to adopt a “home rule” charter. If the charter passes, the city has the full power of self-government, including the ability to vote on ballot initiatives, referenda, and recalls.
But the Legislature’s increasing willingness to overturn local ordinances has left some city officials wondering how much “home” is left in home rule. David Rutledge is the mayor of Bridge City, a home-rule municipality with a population of 9,500 in Orange County, in the southeast corner of Texas, a few miles from the Louisiana border. “We have the power to kind of regulate what goes on in our city, up to a certain point,” Rutledge told me. “Over the last few years, [the Legislature] seems to be chipping away at that.” The mayor cited a state law passed in 2019 that requires landowner or voter approval for most annexations. He said the bill has made it harder for Bridge City to broaden its tax base and provide services for its growing population. “The Legislature likes to talk about the ‘Texas miracle,’ ” Rutledge said. “But if they aren’t real careful, they’re going to end up strangling the miracle.”
Perhaps no issue better illustrates the growing power of state government than that of election management. Although the Secretary of State is Texas’s chief election officer, county officials have broad discretion to run their own elections. But over the past decade, as most urban counties have voted for Democrats in growing proportions, and as more Republicans have spread unsubstantiated fears that widespread voter fraud is tainting election results, legislators have been steadily clawing back power from local officials.
Ground zero in this particular local-state power struggle is Harris County, home to Houston. With 4.7 million residents spread across nearly 1,800 square miles, it’s the most populous county in Texas and the third-largest in the country. Conducting elections in a county with a population larger than those of 26 U.S. states poses unique challenges. Harris County operated 782 polling places for the November midterm elections, with some election judges driving for more than an hour to deliver results to the central counting office. Under both Republican and Democratic election administrators, Harris County has typically been one of the last counties in Texas to report election results.
To ensure that every eligible voter can cast a ballot, the county’s election officials have had to get creative. That was especially true for the 2020 election, held less than a year into the pandemic. County clerk Chris Hollins introduced 24-hour voting and drive-through voting centers. He used a $29 million budget to hire more than 11,000 election workers—a record number for the county—to operate more than eight hundred polling places. The innovations worked: 66 percent of the county’s 2.48 million registered voters cast ballots, the highest turnout figure since 1992 and nearly 10 percentage points higher than in 2016. And despite being held in the middle of a pandemic, the election was among the smoothest in recent Harris County history, without the long lines that characterized previous elections.
But Hollins wasn’t able to deploy all his plans for increasing voter participation. Two months before the election, following the lead of President Donald Trump—who was loudly claiming, with no evidence, that mail-in ballots were vulnerable to election fraud—Attorney General Paxton successfully sued Hollins to stop him from mailing ballots to every registered voter in the county. On October 1, Abbott issued his order limiting every Texas county to a single drop box for absentee ballots—a move that disproportionately affected large urban counties such as Harris, which was planning to use a dozen drop boxes. In the following year’s legislative session, Republican lawmakers rolled back the rest of Hollins’s innovations with Senate Bill 1, a sweeping package of “election integrity” measures that included prohibitions on drive-through voting and 24-hour voting. “That was done to bring the vote totals down in Harris County,” said former senator Seliger (who nonetheless voted for the law because he supported “some of its other provisions”). His fellow Republicans, Seliger said, “are trying to hold back the tide of Democratic voters in the state of Texas.”
The results were predictable. In the 2022 primary and general elections, Harris County voters once again experienced long lines, followed by a long wait to receive election results. Some of the problems were self-inflicted. On election day in November, more than one hundred polling places temporarily ran out of paper ballots, according to an investigation by KHOU 11. But rather than working with the county to improve its process, state leaders used the botched election to tar the county’s election officials as irredeemably corrupt. “The allegations of election improprieties in our state’s largest county may result from anything ranging from malfeasance to blatant criminal conduct,” Abbott said, calling for a criminal investigation. (The Texas Rangers are now investigating the ballot shortages at the request of Harris County district attorney Kim Ogg.) Lieutenant Governor Patrick called for a do-over election in the county. Twenty-two Republican candidates who lost in November have filed lawsuits challenging the results.
In this year’s session, the Legislature is considering a number of bills giving the state even greater control over local elections. Republican senator Paul Bettencourt, of Houston, has filed a bill that would create a cadre of state-appointed “election marshals” to investigate election fraud. Under a measure introduced by Republican representative Steve Toth, of the Woodlands, any candidate, county party chair, or election judge could demand an explanation from local election officials of perceived “irregularities in precinct results.” Republican representative Bryan Slaton, of Royse City, has filed legislation that would give the attorney general the power to file charges to remove local district attorneys from office if he determines that they are not enforcing state election laws.
“You have Republicans openly saying, ‘Let’s take over elections,’ and specifically promoting bills to do that,” said Democratic Harris County judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top elected official. “That’s not normal. That goes well past any kind of even Texas-level partisanship.” Harris County commissioner Adrian Garcia, a Democrat who previously served as sheriff and as a Houston City Council member, believes that the GOP is wresting away control of elections because large Texas cities have become Democratic bastions. “The more they realize they can’t win in Harris County, the harder they work to rig the system,” Garcia said. “It seems like they’re doing everything they can to erase Harris County off the map of Texas.”
Most of the Legislature’s preemption bills appear to be targeted at the state’s large urban areas, which have vigorously resisted the state’s rightward drift. But as Abbott and the Legislature continue to chip away at local control, smaller red cities and counties have experienced collateral damage. In 2017, for instance, Republican lawmakers passed a bill limiting the annexation powers of counties with at least 500,000 residents. Two years later, they dropped the population threshold to 200. Rutledge, the Bridge City mayor, compared the process to cattle rustling. “It’s like cutting cows out of a herd,” he said. “They’ll cut large cities out first, making it seem like it won’t affect the smaller cities. The next thing you know, they’re imposing that same type of legislation on small cities, and it’s too late—they’ve got the whole herd.”
In its zeal to overturn local ordinances, the Legislature is ignoring the diversity of Texas cities, said Bennett Sandlin of the Texas Municipal League. “Why can’t Austin be different from Muleshoe, and Muleshoe be different from Austin?” he asked. “It makes sense to have cities do things differently, and people can vote with their feet if they don’t like it.” Just as Texas chafes at being told what to do by Washington, D.C., cities chafe at being told what to do by Austin. “The government closest to the people knows best,” Sandlin argued. “That’s the whole point of federalism.”
The deluge of preemption bills pouring out of the state capitol has demoralized many local activists. For Cathy McMullen, the state’s decision to overturn the fracking ban she fought so hard to pass was almost too much to bear. “That broke me,” she said. “The day after the Legislature did that, I got in my car and I just drove around the state for a couple days.”
Faced with the prospect of living next to another fracking site, she reluctantly decided to leave Denton. McMullen settled in 2016 in the beach town of Rockport, a thirty-minute drive north of Corpus Christi, where there is little fracking going on. McMullen has largely given up on politics, instead devoting her energy to animal-rescue activities. In her darker moments, she wonders whether the years she spent campaigning for the fracking ban were a waste of time. “What the hell is municipal government for?” McMullen remembers wondering after the Legislature overturned the ordinance. “Just to collect the water bill?”