Ron Nirenberg will have served as mayor of San Antonio for less than 50 days when he sits down with Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday to discuss intensifying efforts to shift authority from home rule cities to the State.
The meeting comes two weeks after Nirenberg and 17 other Texas mayors signed a joint letter to the governor requesting an emergency meeting to address the governor’s 20-item special session agenda for the Texas Legislature, which reconvened on July 18. San Antonio initiated the letter, but Abbott met first only with the mayors of small and medium cities. Only now is he meeting with any of the big city mayors.
It won’t be an easy conversation. Even the optimist in me does not expect it to be a productive one. Nirenberg is smart, speaks with clarity and conviction, and is always deeply read on the issues at hand. Still, he is not likely to find a governor open to persuasion.
Abbott and his fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are presiding over a 30-day special session that takes direct aim at Texas cities and local control. On the governor’s agenda are calls to require elections for property tax increases over a certain level; impose caps on state and local spending; curtail the ability of cities to annex unincorporated development in their extraterritorial jurisdiction; and prevent cities from enacting tree ordinances affecting private property owners.
The Texas Senate under Patrick has rubber-stamped 18 of the agenda items with little debate, while the Texas House under Speaker Joe Straus is applying the brakes on the so-called “bathroom bill” that has dominated debate for months and singles out transgender individuals. It’s considered a serious threat to Texas business and tourism. Local officials here say the impact has already been felt in a decline in convention bookings, and there is fear San Antonio could lose the 2018 NCAA Men’s Final Four.
Straus and others in the House hope to shift the debate to public school finance reform. With two weeks left in the special session, it is doubtful that bills addressing all 20 issues will reach Abbott’s desk for his signature and approval into law.
Still, cities will be the inevitable losers. It’s now a matter of how much governing authority is lost. The legislation that aims to limit annexation in home rule cities is arguably the most significant change in my lifetime to the way Texas cities are governed, yet it is happening without much media attention or public awareness.
“The fundamental truth about the whole debate over local control is that taking authority away from cities – preventing us from carrying out the wishes of our constituents – is subverting the will of the voter,” Nirenberg said in testimony before the House Urban Affairs Committee on July 26, according to the Texas Tribune.
Liberal or conservative, you would be mistaken to see the special session agenda as anything other than a state challenge to home rule and local control. That’s been acknowledged by both Abbott and Patrick in their most recent public comments.
Patrick blamed Democratic mayors and City Council members for the nation’s problems in a nationally-televised interview with Fox Business Network on Friday, and said people are pleased with state government and unhappy with the way cities are being managed by elected officials.
“Our cities are still controlled by Democrats,” Patrick told Fox’s Stuart Varney. “And where do we have all our problems in America? Not at the state level run by Republicans, but in our cities that are mostly controlled by Democrat mayors and Democrat city council men and women. That’s where you see liberal policies. That’s where you see high taxes. That’s where you see street crime.”
Patrick is wrong in asserting that all U.S. cities are controlled by Democrats. San Antonio’s municipal elections are nonpartisan. While the mayors of Houston, Dallas, and Austin are Democrats, the mayors of Fort Worth and El Paso are Republicans, both of whom signed the letter to Abbott.
Patrick would be correct in stating that Texas cities are blue islands in an otherwise suburban and rural sea of red. There is an “us vs. them” quality to the special session.
Abbott is equally blunt in his charge that mayors want to make Texas a “California-like” state.
“Private property rights used to mean something in the state of Texas. Increasingly we’re finding that people in Texas are being diminished by local government ordinances,” Abbott told an audience at a recent Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) event, as reported by the Houston Press. “If we don’t stop this real quick, we are in real danger of losing the standard as being the state for freedom, for free enterprise.”
That was the speech that led the 18 mayors to send a letter to Abbott.
“Texas cities are among the fastest growing in the country and play a critical role in the Texas economy,” the mayors wrote to Abbott. “We believe that several of the proposals announced as part of the call for the 85th Special Legislative Session will directly impede the ability of Texas cities to provide vital services that reflect the priorities of local residents.”
Abbott’s determination to eliminate tree ordinances seems to be rooted in his own personal experience of being held accountable for violating the Austin ordinance by taking down a heritage pecan tree in his backyard, as detailed in this recent article in the Texas Observer. The governor has called tree regulations “socialist.”
“Municipalities are saying they have the right to impose a fee on you for removing a tree, because if you remove a tree, you’re diminishing the greater good of the city and the greater good of the environment,” Abbott said during his speech to the TPPF. “They have articulated the per se definition of collectivism, socialism. That must be eradicated and stopped in the state of Texas.”
That’s the viewpoint Nirenberg will confront when he meets with Abbott Monday. The following day, Nirenberg will appear on stage at the Pearl Stable for a luncheon event jointly organized by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Rivard Report. I have the honor of moderating that conversation with the mayor and fielding the questions readers and audience members pose.
When I spoke with Nirenberg and staff members more than one week ago to prepare for the event, his meeting with the governor had not yet been set. We now have yet another timely and important topic to discuss.
What do you want me to ask the mayor? Send your suggested questions to email@example.com. There are still tickets available. Click here if you would like to attend the Tuesday luncheon. You can support our nonprofit community journalism by becoming a member and donating here.