By David C. Stout
This week, our lawmakers in Austin gaveled in another legislative session, a 140-day event certain to be even more unpredictable because of the pandemic.
However, counties and cities across Texas can safely anticipate the return of recent efforts to erode local control, including proposals that will create inefficiencies and cost local taxpayers even more money.
Particularly since the 84th Session, in 2015, legislators have focused closely on scaling back local governments’ ability to be responsive to constituent needs.
Whether it is one-size-fits all rules based on model legislation written and disseminated at out-of-state national conferences or whether it is limiting local governments’ ability to raise revenue without expensive and inefficient elections, a majority of the Texas Legislature has behaved more and more as if the body also aspires to be the city council and/or commissioners court of all municipalities and counties.
Voters elect local officials, and even good governments like El Paso County, which has never exceeded the revenue cap, have been limited. Voters always maintain control because they can vote out incompetent officials. That is how the system is supposed to work.
State preemption of local government almost certainly caused deaths of El Pasoans in 2020. Ending the statewide shutdown forced us to reopen ahead of when we would have, even with temporary staggering. When COVID-19 peaked in November, County Judge Ricardo Samaniego issued a 14-day order closing nonessential businesses, and Texas joined efforts to strike down the order.
The recent downturn we have seen here, from our peak on Nov. 12, almost certainly came about because of the judge’s order. The downturn would be starker but for the success of attacks on the judge’s order.
The Legislature stands poised to make additional efforts to cut from the same cloth that will further damage our community.
Counties spend a minuscule money on lobbyists and on membership-based advocacy groups, such as the Texas Association of Counties and the Conference of Urban Counties. El Paso County is a member of both groups. This session, legislators will consider a bill that attacks our ability to invest in lobbying and in advocacy organizations, both of which would dilute your voice in Austin.
Attempting to do the same work ourselves would be very inefficient, costing you, as taxpayers, more.
Meanwhile, funds come from our budget, which is open to the public and fully accountable to citizens. Even our legislative agenda and policy priorities are posted for action during Commissioners Court meetings, fully open for public viewing and comment, so there is no way to develop secret agendas that would escape accountability to constituents.
Organizations that advocate against local governments and their ability to serve citizens face no such restriction on lobbying. In an already unbalanced fight, special interests would stand to win every key battle by fighting against an unarmed opponent.
Muzzling of advocacy by local governments is only the latest example of attacks on local control. This ongoing chase of political boogeymen will continue until the people expect and elect better representatives.
If you want elected officials from other parts of Texas, many of whom have never set foot in El Paso, to dictate how your Commissioners Court and City Council can meet your needs, you should love recent trends.
If, however, you want the people you elect to local government to be able to respond to your needs without state overreach, let this session be the one where you make calls and send e-mails, especially to our own delegation and leadership at the Capitol, to stop more bad law from being made.
Texas is not monolithic, and local governments’ manner of meeting citizens’ needs also should not be.
It is time to remind legislators of that important concept.
David C. Stout has represented Precinct 2 on the El Paso County Commissioners Court since 2015.