That’s my unofficial title for this legislative session.
The interest group representing Texas cities used to be one of the most powerful legislative forces at the Capitol. This session, it has become the GOP’s most prominent adversary.
Its members have been harangued at hearings. Targeted by a proposed ban on “taxpayer-funded lobbying.” And seen multiple proposals sail ahead over its protests.
When, around March, one mayor inquired about the reasoning for a controversial provision in a property tax bill, he said an advisor to Gov. Greg Abbott suggested, “you reap what you sow.”
The message was clear, said McKinney Mayor George Fuller: Local officials had been obstructionists in the past.
Though the antagonistic relationship between Texas cities and the state has been building for years, this session has reached the fever pitch of all out legislative assault, said Austin Mayor Steve Adler, in April. Typically, the Texas Municipal League tracks bills it opposes that are gaining momentum in the Legislature. This session, the group had amassed more than 150.
Among them, was a cable franchise fees bill authored by state Rep. Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and chair of the powerful State Affairs Committee. After the Texas Municipal League warned its members the proposal could cut into cities’ revenue, Phelan had a concise response for the group, which represents 1,156 of Texas’ roughly 1,200 cities.
“When you are in a hole — you should stop digging,” Phelan recommended, in an email obtained by The Texas Tribune.
In an interview, Phelan said he harbored no animus toward the organization, but took umbrage with its opposition to legislation his constituents want. The sentiment is widely-shared in the Legislature, Phelan said, as evidenced by the support the bills on taxpayer-funded lobbying and franchise fees have garnered.
“Those bills have never gotten out of committee before,” he said. The Texas Municipal League represents “their own interests and we are representing the taxpayers.”
“I think there’s a disconnect sometimes,” he added.
The group’s leaders see a different trend. They say model legislation with an anti-city bent has been exported from conservative think tanks and taken root at statehouses across the country. At the same time, Republican strongholds have shifted to the suburbs, making progressive city leaders convenient whipping boys for politicians from the president on down.
There’s more, so go read the rest. It really does boil down to two things. One is the Republicans’ refusal to address our tax system in a meaningful way. There are things we could do to make the property tax system more equitable. There are things we could do with sales taxes to bring in more revenue in a way that wouldn’t be so regressive. Our whole tax system is a byzantine mess, but the only thing that we’re allowed to talk about is cutting property taxes. This session that means putting the screws to cities, even though local property taxes aren’t driving the growth of property tax collections. The Republicans are looking for a political solution, and cities are a convenient target.
Which leads to point two: Cities are liberal and Democratic, so it’s a twofer for state Republicans to stick it to them. And don’t think that having a Republican mayor would change anything:
“I understand the political atmosphere to reduce taxes; there’s no one that would be more aligned with that than I am,” said El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a former Republican state lawmaker. “But I’m also trying to deal with basics. I say I’m the mayor of public safety, potholes, and parks.”
El Paso’s property values — and so its tax base — is growing at a slower clip than other parts of the state, he said. Though the factors differ from city to city, each municipality has different needs and budgets, and local leaders say they are unaccounted for under a blanket property tax reform policy.
“The frustration is that we are grouped, coupled with across-the-board perceptions,” Margo said.
That’s because your Republican former colleagues don’t care about any of that, Mayor Margo. The only way forward here is to vote them out.