TEXAS – Republicans in the Texas Legislature are gearing up to bar local governments from hiring lobbyists, punish cities that reduce their police budgets and restrict county judges’ power during future pandemics when lawmakers convene in Austin later this month.
The measures are sure to escalate the long-running feud between Texas’ conservative leaders and the mostly Democratic officials who run the state’s largest cities and counties. And while higher profile items such as coronavirus relief and redistricting are expected to eat up much of the 140-day session, Republicans have made clear they will carve out time for items such as the lobbying ban.
“In terms of (taxpayer-funded) lobbying, it’s morphed into a kind of partisan struggle,” said Michael Adams, chair of the political science department at Texas Southern University. “The Dems were hoping, particularly in the House of Representatives, they would fare better (in the November elections). But that didn’t happen, and so we still see the dominance of the Republican Party in all branches of the state government. And certainly I think they will send a signal.”
Local officials have been bracing for an especially difficult session since October 2019, when House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was caught on tape saying he had tried to make that year “the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.” Bonnen said he made his goal evident to “any mayor, county judge that was dumbass enough to come meet with me.”
“I hope the next session’s even worse,” added state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
For some local officials, Bonnen’s comments only affirmed what had been apparent for the last few sessions, when the Legislature passed laws that barred so-called sanctuary jurisdictions and restricted cities’ tree removal ordinances, among numerous other issues opposed by most Democratic local leaders.
Last session, Republicans nearly ushered through a bill to prevent large cities and counties from spending tax revenue on lobbying, but the measure died in the final days when voted down in the House. Bonnen in 2019 announced he would not seek re-election after he was heard on the same tape recording targeting fellow Republicans who opposed the lobbying ban.
Though the Legislature does not begin until Jan. 12, lawmakers already have filed numerous bills related to cities and other local entities. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, has proposed making cities liable for damages if they release someone from custody who was the subject of a federal immigration detainer request and that person commits a felony within 10 years.
A bill filed by state Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, would prevent cities and counties from requiring businesses to adopt labor peace agreements — in which employers agree not to oppose unionization efforts in exchange for employee unions agreeing not to go on strike — in order to receive a contract. State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, has filed legislation that would allow business owners to halt local laws in court if the law “would result in an adverse economic impact” on the owner.
Swanson also filed a bill that would abolish the Harris County Department of Education, unless voters decide to continue it through a referendum on the November 2022 ballot. Conservative lawmakers have long sought to shutter or study closing the agency, the last remaining countywide education department in Texas.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed legislation that would codify a Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter in the county ahead of the November election. Swanson filed the House companion bill.
Bettencourt said the move to mail out the applications “would have certainly caused more voter confusion” because most recipients would not have been eligible for an absentee ballot. The state Supreme Court ruled last year that voters’ lack of immunity to the coronavirus alone does not qualify as a disability that makes them eligible to vote by mail, but could be one of several factors a voter may consider.
Bettencourt also has suggested plans to limit the powers granted to local leaders during emergencies, a reaction to the COVID pandemic restrictions implemented by County Judge Lina Hidalgo and other local leaders.
Houston saw little impact from last session’s crowning conservative achievement, a property tax overhaul that requires local officials to receive voter approval before raising 3.5 percent more property tax revenue than the year before.
Many mayors and county judges said the measure would prevent revenue from keeping pace with built-in annual cost increases, such as employee wages. However, Houston already was under a voter-approved cap that limits annual property tax revenue growth to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of inflation and population growth, whichever is lower. The cap has kept Houston’s annual growth rate well under 3 percent in recent years.
The city also seemingly would be unaffected by a proposal from Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Bonnen to permanently ban cities that “defund” police from increasing their annual property tax revenue in future years. State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, has filed a bill that would bar local governments from reducing the budgets of fire and police agencies.
City Council unanimously passed a budget in June that increased police department funding by 2 percent, and Mayor Sylvester Turner has been adamant that the city needs to hire more police.
Abbott instead has focused his attention on Austin, where the City Council voted in August to dramatically cut the police budget. The governor tweeted in November that he had received draft language for a law that would give the Texas Department of Public Safety control over the Austin Police Department.
Turner, however, has not had a rosy relationship with the Legislature since shepherding through pension reform. Last session, he unsuccessfully opposed a bill signed into law by Abbott that limits the fees telecommunication and cable companies pay cities to use their rights of way, costing the city millions of dollars in revenue. Turner ended the city’s relationship with its hired lobbying firm, HillCo Partners, after learning that it also represents cable and telecommunications companies.
The city also filed a lawsuit over a law that forced Houston to sell its water rights in a proposed reservoir west of Simonton. A state district judge in Travis County tossed the law in December 2019, finding it violated several provisions of the Texas Constitution and Local Government Code.
Turner’s administration already has weighed in against the proposed ban on local government lobbying, which took its first official step forward in December at a Senate committee hearing. Bill Kelly, Turner’s government relations director, was not invited to speak at the hearing but submitted written testimony in which he argued against “restricting the ability of cities to advocate on the same playing field as unions, associations, and corporations.”
Kelly noted that Texas also employs lobbyists to advocate for its interests in Washington, D.C. And he said the city would have been placed at a severe disadvantage if it had been unable to hire lobbyists during the 2017 session, when the Legislature passed a major overhaul of the city’s pension systems. The fire pension system and its hired lobbyists opposed the pension reform, Kelly noted.
James Quintero, director of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Local Governance, argued cities generally argue against the interests of taxpayers who are funding the lobbying costs. He found a receptive audience in state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, who said even if lobbying takes up a small portion of city governments, that money should be spent instead on public safety, street improvements and other areas.
“It’s not the amount of money being spent, per se, but the damage that’s being done to the citizens,” Hall said.