Southwest of Center with Ryan Adams, City of Irving, TX

Posted on February 3, 2015

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This new column will highlight trending issues in Texas. Ryan Adams, City of Irving, TX, Assistant to the City Manager, leads the inaugural discussion. 



to our new organizational member the City of Pearland, TX

Break out the Redbull and Alka-Seltzer – the Leg is in session! 

It’s that time of year that perhaps only the Austin restaurant and hotel industry truly loves.  On January 13, 2015, the 84th Session of the Texas Legislature began and a hoard of legislators, lobbyists, special interest groups, and hangers on swarmed the Texas capitol to experience the agony and ecstasy of creating law in the Lone Star State.  The convening of any state legislature should cause cities to sit up and pay attention.  Why?  As creatures of the state, cities are bound by the legal constraints placed on it by the legislature.  So what?  Due to a combination of political doctrine, legislative turnover, and powerful lobbies, cities are increasingly besieged by bills that undermine their authority and make governing at the local level more difficult.

The Texas Leg

Like most state legislatures, the Texas Leg is a bicameral body of 31 senators and 150 state representatives.  Generally, the legislature is charged with making laws, redistricting, proposing constitutional amendments, and providing oversight of administration.  That’s about where the normalcy ends and the little idiosyncrasies begin to emerge.

download (3)First, there’s the biennial sessions.  The Texas legislature meets only every two years for a regular session that lasts 140 straight days.  This doesn’t even count any 30 day special sessions that are tacked on at the end by the governor.  Last time around, three special sessions created a total of 9 months of legislative goodness.  History is to blame here.  Because Texas is so big, 19th century legislators from agricultural communities 600 miles away from Austin simply could not afford to make that trip any more frequently.  This schedule provides for some interesting consequences.  Since the Leg meets every two years they must prepare a two-year budget each session.  For those of use in cities, imagine trying to create a two year-budget and get it right (Hint:  It’s not easy.)

tumblr_mgu1e92GIp1qddgsoo1_500Then, there is the pay for the legislators.  Each legislator has a salary that of only $7,200 per year.  That’s somewhere in the Chuck-E-Cheese game attendant range.  Combine this with the fact that they must donate a minimum of 140 days of their time to the legislative session, you can see that there is a strong disincentive for those who do not have high degrees of financial and employment flexibility to run for office.   It’s no wonder why studies show that the majority of legislators business executives or attorneys.

Also, the workload is staggering!  Two years’ worth of legislation is being squeezed into one 6 month session.  On average, the legislature files 7,000 bills every session, but that’s not the half of it.  In her book Texas Politics, Charldean Newell lays it all out.  Each legislator must somehow familiarize themselves with the proposed bills, develop and execute their own legislative programs, attend hours of committee meetings, ensure they’re taking care of their constituents needs back home, meet with hometown and interest group representatives in Austin, and discuss the impacts of legislation with state administrators.  Even with all that, only 1/3 of those bills will actually be passed with most of them on trivial matters (Gotta love that resolution recognizing the 4H club from Lampasas).

There are some less daunting quirks too, such as:

  • download (4)There are two security lines going into the Capitol Building. A general line, and another line for people carrying concealed handguns.  Incredibly, the handgun line is faster.  Lobbyists have even bought a gun and received their certification just to not have to wait behind a middle school field trip to get into the Capitol building.
  • Texas legislators cannot be arrested going to, during, or returning from a legislative session. This clause is included in the Texas Constitution, and prevents legislators from being intentionally detained before a vote. Although legislators are privileged from arrest during legislative sessions, they are not immune from being charged with an offense.
  • The Texas Capitol building in Austin is 302.64 feet tall. The U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. is 288 feet tall, making the Texas Capitol 14.64 feet taller than the U.S. Capitol. Because Texas, that’s why.
  • Every 10 years, every state agency has to justify its existence to the legislature.   Single.  Agency.  Even the Comptroller’s office, who is basically the CFO of the state, goes through the process.  If your agency has lost its relevance or becomes wasteful, it will be done away with or absorbed into another agency.

Frenemies – Legislature’s Relationship with Cities

jennfier-lawrence-frenemy-gif-1422459378Cities and the Legislature are, for all intents and purposes, frienemies.  Ninety-nine percent of the time we are totally nice to each other.  We want to have a good working relationship, but we hold two very different ideas of what a working relationship should be.  In Texas, there is a historical separation of authority and finances between home-rule cities (pretty much all those over 5,000 people) and the state.  Generally, cities will raise their own revenue and not rely on the state to fund its operations.  In return, the state will create the general governing framework of cities, but more or less stay out of their business and allow them a high degree of local control.  The common axiom is that cities know best how to govern cities.

Increasingly however, the political winds have shifted and the legislature has become neglectful, if not openly hostile, toward the interests of cities.  Unfunded mandates (the involuntary shifting of costs to cities to the benefit of state finances) is nothing new and has been a way of life for Texas cities for decades.  Several proposed bills in 84th session, however, are blatantly infringing on the concept of local authority and control.  These bills arbitrarily restrict the revenue that cities can raise through property and sales taxes or prevent the cities from enacting regulations to protect the health, safety and welfare of its citizens such as plastic bag bans or gas well fracking restrictions.

This is a tough pill for many cities to swallow as many legislators and statewide leaders were elected on the platform that the federal government needs to keep out of the affairs of the states.  Why do legislators introduce bills that are contrary to the historical relationship with cities?  Three main reasons:

  • Legislative Turnover – there are quite a few new legislators in the Capitol this session. As a result, previously failed anti-municipal bills are being resurrected by new legislators.
  • Political Doctrine – The political ecosystem of the state overwhelmingly favors low taxes and less government. To stay true to those who elected you on that platform, cuts in revenue and government authority must be made somewhere and it’s much less painful to force those cuts on cities than on school districts and state agencies.
  • Powerful Lobbies – Legislation is often a balance between interests. Too much benefit to one side results in a detriment to another.  As such, an exercise of municipal authority may restrict the authority of another group.  These groups, if organized and funded, can be powerful lobbies against municipal regulation.

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