Area residents protest while San Antonio City Council considers an annexation plan.
Area residents protest while San Antonio City Council considers an annexation plan. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Amid all the noise in Washington D.C. over the failure of Senate Republicans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and in Austin as Senate Republicans voted anew for a “bathroom bill,” other legislative decisions of great importance to San Antonio drew far less media attention.

Two days, two decisions. One good, one bad.

With far less fanfare or media attention, a Joint Statement on Tax Reform issued Thursday by the White House and House and Senate leaders included an acknowledgement, buried in the text, that the Republicans’ proposed border adjustment tax, a plan to impose a 20% tariff on all imported goods, had been abandoned.

That’s especially good news for San Antonio and the Texas economy in general, where cross-border trade now totals $179 billion annually. Such a tax would have slowed imports from Mexico and inflated the price of co-manufactured goods like Toyota pickup trucks, flat screen televisions, and countless other consumer products.

The tax would have cast a pall over the coming NAFTA renegotiation. The fiery political rhetoric and tweets about trade, immigration, and “the wall” emanating from the president already have damaged the decades of mutual trust and respect established at the negotiating table. Business and bluster do not mix.

Efforts are underway by Mayor Ron Nirenberg, with bipartisan support in Washington from two South Texas Congressmen, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo) and U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Helotes), to bring the coming NAFTA negotiations to San Antonio. The original agreement was initialed by the three heads of state in front of the old German-English School on South Alamo Street in 1992.

Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Congressman Will Hurd (R-Texas) speak in a conversation regarding NAFTA and trade policy at the Pearl Stables.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo) and U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Helotes) speak in a conversation regarding NAFTA and trade policy at the Pearl Stable. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Landing the talks here would be a coup, bringing newfound media attention to our fast-evolving city, and further cementing San Antonio’s reputation throughout the hemisphere as a welcoming destination for all.

While the death of the border tax took a back seat to the health care debate, back in Austin, all the attention was on the Texas Senate’s 21-10 partisan approval of Senate Bill 3, the so-called “bathroom bill,” which was sent to the House where Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) leads those who oppose its adoption.

Less attention was paid to Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and the successful passage of Senate Bill 6, which would allow citizens living or owning property in unincorporated areas outside cities to vote on any annexation initiatives.

While the bathroom bill poses a serious threat to San Antonio’s convention, visitor, and major entertainment event industries – no small thing – Campbell’s bill literally would change the future course of the city, a change that sweeps aside a century of development law and is proposed without any in-depth study of the long-term consequences.

The legislation also will alienate military leaders, who have repeatedly called for five-mile exclusionary zones around some of San Antonio’s military installations, regionally adopted guidelines firmly embedded in the Joint Base San Antonio Land Use Study. SB 6 allows only for a one-quarter mile buffer, which officials say is inadequate and threatens the viability of military training exercises and operations.

The U.S. Air Force Aerial Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds” practice performing F-16 acrobatic maneuvers Oct. 26, 2015 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. The Thunderbirds team members arrived in preparation for the 2015 JBSA-Randolph Air Show and Open House to be held Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. Air shows allow the Air Force to display the capabilities of our aircraft to the American taxpayer through aerial demonstrations and static displays and allowing attendees to get up close and personal to see some of the equipment and aircraft used by the U.S. military today. (U.S. Air Force photo by Johnny Saldivar/Released)
The U.S. Air Force Aerial Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds” practices performing F-16 acrobatic maneuvers Oct. 26, 2015 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Johnny Saldivar

No other major city in Texas would be affected more than San Antonio by the annexation legislation. The city is not yet encircled by other municipalities, as is the case in Dallas, and thus has a clear path to grow in multiple directions.

Home rule cities in Texas and across the nation have grown historically via annexation, and state law has long allowed for such planned growth as areas in extrajudicial territorial areas around cities becomes populated by residential and commercial development. Texas alone would end such law under the new legislation.

It’s worth taking the time to read a history of annexation and how it has allowed Texas cities to grow and prosper.

The cost-benefit of such growth remains a subject of debate on a case-by-case basis, and all annexation initiatives are costly in the short term and thus have an impact on the infrastructure needs of the city’s most established neighborhoods and communities. Yet without annexation, outlying residents benefit from city services without paying for them at the same rate as those who dwell inside the city limits.

The bill, if approved by the House and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, would undo San Antonio’s recent efforts to annex territories along U.S. 281 North, Interstate 10 West, and the unprecedented territory and tax base swap negotiated with the City of Converse earlier this year that would have sparked dramatic growth and economic development in that Interstate 35 corridor city.

Campbell’s anti-annexation bill during the regular session omitted the Converse deal, and ultimately was killed when Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) mounted an 11th hour filibuster that ran out the legislative clock.

State Senator José Menéndez (D26) waits for the press conference titled "Bottom Line: Business Beyond Bathrooms" to begin at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.
State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) speaks at the Henry B. González Convention Center about the legislature’s special session. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

This time the Converse deal falls victim to the special session version of the bill, in what many observers regarded as political payback for the Democratic senator’s filibuster.

How it now fares in the House remains to be seen, but local officials I have spoken with are not optimistic. Ultimately, San Antonio and other cities likely will  challenge the constitutionality of legislation.

There are multiple pieces of legislation now in play that concern local officials who are battling to keep local issues under local control and out of the hands of statewide elected officials.

There is a culture war underway among socially conservative statewide office holders, suburban and rural legislators, and voters, on one side, and the elected officials and a majority of voters in major Texas cities. It’s a decidedly Red-Blue divide best described by Texas journalist and author Lawrence Wright in his recent New Yorker article, America’s Future is Texas.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg looks concerned at "A Conversation with Mayor Ron Nirenberg" at UTSA Downtown Campus Buena Vista Street Building Theater.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg listens to a question during a recent town hall discussion. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

There will be much to talk about on Aug. 8 when Mayor Nirenberg appears on the stage of the Pearl Stable for a luncheon conversation jointly organized by the Rivard Report and the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. By then, the Texas Legislature will be eight days away from conclusion of the 30-day special session called by Abbott.

Local officials and the community will have a much better sense how the House will deal with the 20 issues Abbott put on the agenda and that the Senate is approving wholesale. One way or the other, the impact on San Antonio and our future course will be significant. Don’t miss it.

For ticket information to the Aug. 8 “Conversation with Mayor Ron Nirenberg,” click here.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.