To be fair, it’s not just Harris County that’s in the crosshairs, it’s the big urban counties, and cities in general. But it’s real and it’s dangerous and it’s anti-democratic.
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.”
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.
That’s a lot, and it doesn’t count the revenue cap, or this little gem that I had been unaware of:
During the 2019 legislative session, Abbott quietly backed a bill that would have maintained the current system in Texas’ rural Republican regions while changing it in more densely populated, mostly Democratic counties. That bill, which failed, would essentially have allowed the Republican governor to pick judges in the state’s Democratic areas, while Republican voters picked judges in the conservative areas.
I have to say, on reading all this my first reaction was why would anyone in Harris County want to be governed by people who hate us and want to do us harm? Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if Harris County were its own state. We’d have something like ten electoral votes all on our own, and we wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of bullshit.
It wasn’t always like this, of course. It’s not that long ago that “local control” was a Republican slogan rather than a quaint idea. But it’s also not that long ago that Harris was a Republican stronghold, and the radical shift in philosophy isn’t a coincidence. It’s very much of a piece with the Trump administration’s attacks on blue states, and of the increasingly bizarre and undemocratic legal arguments being made about this past election, including the one that the Supreme Court briefly considered that federal courts could overrule state courts on matters of state administration of elections. It has nothing to do with federalism or “states’ rights” or local control or any other mantra, but everything to do with the fact that Republicans don’t recognize any authority that isn’t theirs. If they don’t like it, it’s not legitimate, and the laws and the voters can go screw themselves.
This, as much as anything, is the tragedy of Dems not being able to retake the State House. With no check on their power, the Republicans are going to do what they want, and the best we can do is try to slow them down. It makes the 2022 election, and the continued need to break through at the statewide level, so vital. I’ll say it one more time, nothing will change until we can win enough elections to change the balance of power in this state. And if someone can give me an answer to that “how can Harris County become its own state” question, I’m listening.