Cathy McMullen became a fracking refugee in 2009. The home-health 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 drill and 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 measure into law, touting it as a way to avoid 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 one of the first shots in what has become a Republican war against local control in Texas, where most big cities and many smaller ones are run by Democrats. Over the past eight years, the GOP-dominated Legislature has passed so-called “preemption” bills that forbid cities from 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.
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, 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 executive action: the local bans on plastic bags that he called out in 2015 were overturned in 2018 by the GOP-dominated state Supreme Court, and last year the Texas Transportation Commission, whose members are 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.)
Republican lawmakers appear to be in lockstep with the governor. In 2019 House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, a Republican, 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. (Bonnen later announced he would not seek reelection because of his disparaging remarks about some fellow legislators that were caught on the same recording.)
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 state senator Kel Seliger, a Republican 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 anybody 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 1961 and served as its 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 (Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin), while Republican support is increasingly concentrated in rural areas. “They’re not upwardly mobile,” Thorburn said of voters in today’s Republican base. “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, 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 culture warriors 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 said. “They have whatever powers the state deigns to grant them—and it does grant them powers in the Local Government Code and other statutes. 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 municipalities, which typically have fewer than five thousand residents, can exercise only 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, a few miles from the Louisiana border, in Orange County. “We have the power to kind of regulate what goes on in our city, up to a certain point,” Rutledge said. “Over the course of 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 seems to talk about the ‘Texas miracle,’ ” Rutledge said. “But if they aren’t real careful, they’re going to wind 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 urban counties have voted for Democrats in growing proportions, and as more Republicans have stoked 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 nation. Conducting elections in a county with a population greater than that of 26 U.S. states poses unique challenges. Harris County operated 782 polling places for the November midterm elections, with some election judges driving forty minutes or more to deliver results to the central counting office. Under both Republican and Democratic election administrators, it typically has been one of the last counties in Texas to report election results.
To ensure that every eligible voter can cast a ballot, Harris 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 spent more than $30 million to hire more than 11,000 election workers to operate some eight hundred polling places. The innovations worked: 66 percent of the 2.48 million registered voters cast ballots, the highest turnout figure since 1992 and nearly ten percentage points higher than in 2016. And though it was held in the middle of a pandemic, the election was among the smoothest in recent Harris County history, without the long lines seen in previous years.
But Hollins wasn’t able to deploy all his plans for increasing voter participation. Two months before the election, Attorney General Paxton successfully sued Hollins to stop him from mailing ballots to every registered voter. On October 1, Abbott issued his order limiting each Texas county to a single drop box for absentee ballots; Harris County had been planning to use a dozen. 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.
Republicans are floating a variety of measures in this year’s session to give the state even greater control over local elections. 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 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.” Representative Bryan Slaton, of Royse City, has introduced 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 in Harris County,’ and specifically promoting bills around that,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat and the county’s top elected official. “That’s not normal. That goes well beyond any kind of even Texas-level partisan fighting.” 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 as if they’re working to do everything 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 of the herd and make it to where it doesn’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.”
The deluge of preemption bills pouring out of the state capitol has demoralized many local activists. For Cathy McMullen, the Lege’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 near another fracking site, she reluctantly decided to leave Denton. She settled in 2016 in the beach town of Rockport, thirty minutes north of Corpus Christi, where there is little fracking going on. McMullen has largely given up on activism, 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. “Why the hell do we have municipalities?” McMullen remembers asking herself after the Legislature overturned the ordinance. “Just to collect the water bill?”
This article appeared in the May 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “How the GOP Learned to Love Big Government.” It originally published online on March 9, 2023, and has since been updated.