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Texas Association of Counties

Cities and counties push back on state meddling attempts

They’ve got their work cut out for them.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The mayors of Texas’ largest cities on Monday pushed back against an initiative by state lawmakers to place new revenue caps on local communities as a way to answer conservatives’ demands to cut property taxes.

As the city CEOs who represent a third of Texas’ population threw their clout behind blocking the new caps, saying it would hurt their ability to provide basic services, they also said they will oppose attempts by the Legislature to limit local control by overturning ordinances on fracking, plastic bags and tree-trimming.

Gov. Greg Abbott last month complained that Texas was being “California-ized” by local governments passing bans on plastic bags, fracking and tree-cutting, saying, “We need to peel back some of these ridiculous, unnecessary requirements.”

Previous legislative efforts to restrict cities’ rule-making authority have met with resistance from those citing the need for local control. Several bills in the last session to overturn cities’ authority to ban bags failed to win approval amid opposition from cities and environmental groups.

At their news conference Monday, the mayors used the same reasoning to oppose tax cuts being contemplated by lawmakers.

Calling themselves the M-10, for the 10 largest cities they represent, the mayors said in a joint statement that new caps on property taxes would impair the ability of cities to properly manage their operations and would thwart the ability of cities to solve problems in their own ways.

“We are very clear that we need to focus on solving the problems of Texas in a fiscally responsible way,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker, echoing the sentiments of other mayors who said local governments have limited property tax increases in many areas and are budgeting in a frugal way.

The city of Houston has not increased its property tax rate since 1994; in fact, the city has cut its tax rate since then, though its revenues have continued to grow because of higher property appraisals.

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor said local governments should be allowed to determine their own budgets, not affected adversely by Austin.

“Our cities are the economic engine for the Texas miracle,” she said.

It’s not just the cities that are feeling the potential crush here. That’s good, because Texas’ cities are increasingly out of step politically with the state. I doubt the Lege would have much concern about sticking it to the cities, but if they’re hearing it from county officials as well, they might hesitate. I hope, anyway. And I’ll say again, the Mayoral candidates need to get on this, like now. This Legislature has the capability and the inclination to do a lot to affect their agendas, and not in a good way. What are they waiting for? Trail Blazers has more.

Less is more, local legislative edition

Harris County and the city of Houston generally play more defense than offense when the Legislature is in session, so as a rule the fewer bills that get passed that affect them, the better.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

County and city lobbyists said their efforts to scuttle unfunded mandates and bills that would have handcuffed local governments’ powers largely had succeeded.

On a broader level, however, Mayor Annise Parker and County Judge Ed Emmett were disappointed that some of their top priorities stalled.

“When we go to Austin, our goal is generally to play defense to keep things from happening that would have major consequences for Houston taxpayers, but we also try to promote a limited city agenda,” Parker said. “We made progress on some small pieces of legislation. Would I characterize it as a horrible session? No. A horrible session is when they do something really stupid to you, and there were some really stupid bills that we jumped on.”

Most notably, bills to cap local government revenues did not succeed, said the Texas Municipal League’s Bennett Sandlin and Texas Association of Counties’ Lonnie Hunt.

“Our mantra, more or less, is local control,” Hunt said.

[…]

Judge Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

Emmett said he was disappointed, but not surprised, the Legislature failed to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. He also decried a lack of progress on transportation.

“That’s the biggest worry we have, because if we’re going to realize our economic potential and our growth potential, we’re going to have to have transportation, and right now it’s not there,” he said.

Emmett and [Rep. Garnet] Coleman cheered large increases in mental health funding compared to the last biennial budget, including a $10 million pilot program to divert the mentally ill from the Harris County jail.

Given the Legislature’s “disgraceful” failure to restrict payday lending, or to ban texting while driving, Parker said she will move forward with local ordinances.

Parker echoed Emmett’s disappointment at the Legislature’s progress on big issues, ticking off education, transportation, immigration and pensions as areas in which she said there had been insufficient progress.

“It’s always a success for a city when the Legislature doesn’t do anything to harm that city,” she said, “but in terms of the major issues confronting our state … you can’t say this was a successful Legislative session.”

Given that at one point, the payday lending bill would have done little more than nullify local ordinances, failure to do anything wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Mayor Parker wanted to wait and see what the Lege would do before acting locally on the issue, so I’m glad to see her bring it up again. We did get the bike trail bill, which was very nice, and there was something in there about a bill to allow county clerks to accept financial disclosure forms and campaign finance reports electronically, which would be awesome if it leads to a makeover for the crappy interface we have now. Death to scanned PDFs, I say! We didn’t get Medicaid expansion, but we did at least get that.

SCOTUS redistricting briefs

Opening briefs for the SCOTUS hearing on Texas redistricting were filed yesterday – you can see them here. The State of Texas is going long – Michael Li explains.

The State of Texas asks the Supreme Court to let the state use the maps passed by the Texas Legislature for the 2012 election cycle, citing now tight election deadlines.

Texas’ 2012 elections have already been delayed by agreement of the two major political parties. Even the deadlines contained in that carefully crafted agreement, however, are rapidly approaching. Candidates for office need to know the borders of the districts in which they will be running. Voters need to know who their candidates will be. Election officials need to print and mail absentee and overseas ballots. And, in order for the primaries to go forward on April 6, 2012, as agreed to by the political parties, usable redistricting maps must be in place by February 1, 2012. Especially for the presidential primaries, any further delays will significantly diminish the role of the nation’s second-largest State in choosing the parties’ presidential candidates.

In light of these exigencies, there simply does not appear to be enough time to remand the case and allow the district court to craft yet another batch of interim maps for the upcoming elections. Accordingly, this Court should vacate the interim orders and remand to the district court with instructions to impose Texas’ legislatively enacted plan as the interim plan while preclearance is pending.

The state’s request is almost certain to draw sharp rebukes from plaintiff groups, contending that the relief sought by the state, if granted, would essentially gut section 5 preclearance and reward states for going slow.

SCOTUSblog goes into more detail. Of course, as Matt Angle pointed out, the reason we’re up against a tight schedule is because the Republicans who controlled the redistricting process took their sweet time, and chose the least swift option, at every step. One could argue, as the plaintiffs have, that keeping the San Antonio maps would also accomplish the goal of minimizing the work that needs to be done by elections administrators to get ready for the primaries, without incinerating the Voting Rights Act. That’s what the state is aiming for, to be sure, and there’s a non-trivial chance they’ll get it. I don’t know how to estimate the chances of it.

Speaking of the schedule and the election admins, they’re already sounding the alarm.

Texas counties say the April 3 primary election date won’t work.

In papers filed in federal court this afternoon, the officials who actually administer the state’s elections say that date — agreed to by the Democratic and Republican parties and ordered by a panel of federal judges in San Antonio — creates an impossible situation for them.

[…]

In their legal briefs, the Conference of Urban Counties, the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, and the Texas Association of Counties said they agree that all of the primaries should be held on the same day, but object to the date chosen by the political parties:

Despite agreement with the unified primaries, the County Organizations believe the Order issued in these consolidated cases on December 16, 2011 imposes on counties requirements that (1) are impossible to comply with, or that will be extremely difficult and expensive to comply with, if compliance is physically possible; and (2) may lead to voter confusion and disenfranchisement.

They said they’re basing that position on conferences with several counties of various sizes, from Harris, the state’s most populous county, all the way down to Shelby, with its 25,400 residents.

The court based the April 3 date on having a map in place by Feb. 1. But the counties say that wouldn’t leave them enough time. The court would give them only two weeks to prepare voter registration certificates that take six to seven weeks to prepare, the groups said.

“If voter registrars are required to mail inaccurate voter registration certificates in order to meet the deadline set by the Court, there is likely to be much confusion among voters. And voter confusion leads to voter disenfranchisement,” they wrote.

Isn’t this fun? I just have no idea what’s going to happen. Everything about this year is unprecedented. I don’t know what to expect.