It's Not Just Austin the GOP Hates; Local Governments Have Become Political Foil for Conservatives

Austin seems to have a time-honored role as a target for the ire of state legislators. But the capital city was hardly alone in the latest legislative session, which saw the clearest and most persistent attack yet on the autonomy of local governments. Several Texas cities have been involved in skirmishes over issues such as sanctuary cities, plastic bag bans, transgender bathroom policies and ride-sharing ordinances, to name a few. These increasing efforts by the state to pre-empt local governments are part of a political trend that is much bigger than Austin.In the middle of the legislative session, the most popular and well-known Republican leader in the state, Gov. Greg Abbott, clearly articulated the approach that has been percolating in conservative corners of the GOP for years: "As opposed to the state having to take multiple rifle-shot approaches at overriding local regulations," he told attendees at the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute in March, according to The Texas Tribune, "I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says, across the board, the state is going to pre-empt local regulations is a superior approach."Advocates of state pre-emption are not without a foundation for their arguments. Even the staunchest defenders of local governments admit that those governments are created by the Texas Constitution and that actions taken by them can be modified or reversed by state law. The Texas Constitution's provisions on local governments are scattershot, yet the Constitution's architecture empowers the Legislature to define the relationships.The impulse to hamstring local governments also reflects the geography of Texas politics. It is no coincidence that the cities feeling the greatest legislative heat also hold large numbers of Democratic voters and elected officials. And Texas is a state where large urban areas get more Democratic with each election.However, these efforts are not all about the urban/rural divide and the partisanship that it implies. For example, the recent efforts to curtail local property tax increases might have been primarily aimed at fast-growing suburban and exurban areas, where large numbers of Republican voters are clamoring for property tax relief.And the fact that taking on local government sometimes means battling local governments elected by Republicans points to the broader political driver of this new political orientation: the need for a new political foil since the surprising advent of Republican-dominated national government. Absent a Democrat in the White House, fighting local governments is the new coalition unifier.In a time of interparty divisions, strengthening state government at the expense of local governments provides a conservative argument for the GOP coalition on a range of issues. Want to speak to social conservatives? Fight over transgender bathroom rules. Energy firms? Fight fracking restrictions. The tech companies? Offer a statewide framework for ride-sharing. Rank-and-file Republicans? Outlaw sanctuary cities and override the policies of local police.Texas' cities require new arguments with more political resonance if they are to meet the new rhetoric of state supremacy emanating from conservatives. The expiration of the "local control" message signals a need not just to find a new catchphrase but to find new rationales for defending effective, semi-autonomous, local government for the large number of Texans who live in the state's growing urban centers — and to find a set of messengers who can successfully articulate them.Jim Henson is the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, and Joshua Blank is its manager of polling and research. Email: texaspolitics@mail.laits.utexas.eduWhat's your view?Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor, and you just might get published.  Continue reading...

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