AUSTIN – When asked what he hopes Gov. Greg Abbott will take away from their meeting on Monday, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg responded with a phrase most Texans know: “Don’t mess with Texas.”
The State Legislature’s special session, called on June 6 by Abbott, “has shown a willingness to dismantle what most people are calling ‘The Texas Miracle’” – the state’s economic success and ability to endure turmoil, Nirenberg said.
“The strength of our state, which is a rapidly urbanizing state, is [based on] the success of our cities,” he added. “Building infrastructure, creating the jobs, growing the diversity … it’s happening in cities.”
During a nationally televised interview last week, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said city governments are to blame for “all our problems in America,” furthering the rhetoric in the “local versus state control” debate that has taken center stage during the special session.
“Our cities are still controlled by Democrats,” Patrick added. “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.”
“Sounds like a statement from a very frustrated politician,” Nirenberg told reporters after the meeting. “At this point this [special session] agenda has made us all frustrated.”
San Antonio’s city elections are nonpartisan.
Patrick didn’t come up during his conversation with Abbott, Nirenberg said. The meeting, which took place in the governor’s office at the State Capitol, included Garland Mayor Douglas Athas.
The one-hour meeting covered a number of issues, according to Nirenberg. The three men discussed annexation, transportation, and education finance, but a proposal to limit local property tax increases and the issue of local versus state control dominated a good portion of the meeting, Nirenberg said.
Abbott and Athas did not respond to requests for interviews.
“What I hoped to use our time for was to see if there was some common ground because we can agree that the success of the cities of Texas means the success of the state of Texas,” Nirenberg told reporters after the meeting.
There are less than 10 days left before the special session ends, and the Legislature has yet to send one bill to the governor’s desk for approval.
It seems common ground was hard to find Monday. The only specific example Nirenberg provided was on property tax caps: the mayor could see a compromise on the ability of cities to limit local property tax increases if – and only if – budgets for police and fire departments aren’t diminished. Revenue for public safety would be excluded from such a tax.
Abbott and other Republican supporters say the proposed measures will allow homeowners to keep up with growing property taxes. Did Nirenberg’s proposal appeal to Abbott?
“I wouldn’t go that far, but we gave him some things to think about,” Nirenberg said.
But what that bill or amendment would look like remains to be seen as the House considers two similar bills that would decrease the rate at which local governments can raise property taxes. The current rollback cap is 8%. The proposed bills would cap it at 6% and require voters to decide on any further increases.
Nirenberg and other city leaders that have criticized the bill, saying it would limit funding and, therefore, critical city services. The average San Antonio homeowner would save a mere $3.67 per month.
“Nothing is getting onto a Senate [bill] amendment unless it has your blessing,” he recalled telling Abbott. “You need to start fighting for Texas cities.”
There was no direct response from the governor on that point, Nirenberg said.
While the three men met, the House failed to advance Senate Bill 6 – which would limit cities’ authority to annex nearby property and require a vote on proposed annexations – after it was knocked back down to a legislative committee by way of a technical issue.
Without the protection of city zoning and planning regulations, it’s hard to mitigate encroaching development around military bases – which need a certain degree of privacy, darkness, and quiet to effectively train troops.
But the bill’s author, State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), told her colleagues in July during “a fiery floor speech … she doesn’t buy the military base argument. She argued that cities have other regulatory tools that allow them to manage development around military bases,” according to the Texas Tribune.
Nirenberg said he got the impression that Abbott understood the importance of the preservation of military bases, but the mayor did not seem convinced that the governor and other Republicans would stop pursuing annexation bills to limit city authority.
A similar bill was killed by State Sen. José Menendéz (D-San Antonio) in May. The current bill will now be considered by the House Committee on Land and Resource Management.
Nirenberg struggled to recall if the so-called “bathroom bill” came up during his conversation with Abbott when questioned by reporters. It was a topic Nirenberg vowed to bring up when he met with the governor again. They ran out of time, Nirenberg said, adding that it was “quickly overshadowed by all this [other] stuff.”
The governor knows well San Antonio City and business leaders’ opposition to the bathroom bill, Nirenberg said. “We wanted to spend our time on issues where we could move the needle a little bit,” he explained.
It is unclear why Garland, a suburban municipality northeast of Dallas, was coupled with San Antonio for the meeting with the governor.
Abbott left mayors of the state’s five largest cities out of meetings scheduled for late July, but has since scheduled meetings with those of Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. The status of Abbot’s meeting with Austin Mayor Steve Adler is unconfirmed at this time.
Very little common ground will be gained if the state-versus-city narrative doesn’t subside, Nirenberg said.
“I told [Abbott] one of my main concerns is that the level of vitriol and anti-city rhetoric that has been placed on the floor by this agenda has not been helpful,” he said. “He’s going to have to work hard to unwind some of that and to cool the temperature off.”