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Progressive Government in Texas? Look to the Cities.

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Mayor Julián Castro
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Outgoing San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro convinced voters to pass a tax increase in 2012 to help fund full-day pre-K.

Rick Perry is fond of saying that the 50 states are “laboratories of innovation” where the real work of democracy occurs.

Quick—name one innovation the Texas Legislature has produced in the last, say, three sessions. Name one big idea of Rick Perry’s during his 14 years in office. And no, colossal failures like the Trans-Texas Corridor and HPV vaccinations for teen girls don’t count.

But Perry does have a point: The descent of the Congress into a depressing burlesque of corruption and gridlock has made state government more important than ever. But in Texas, state government is increasingly suffering from the same malaise we see in Washington, D.C.: small-mindedness, ideological extremism on the right and a toxic anti-government strain that ricochets between a steadfast unwillingness to use the public sector to solve problems and an active campaign to dismantle successful programs. The list of things the Texas Legislature ought to address, but doesn’t, could occupy many column inches. If anything, it’s going to get worse before it gets better (if it gets better), due to the tea party takeover of the Texas GOP.

Perry wants to wage a war of state vs. state and state vs. fed, but in Texas it is our cities—especially the big six of Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio—that are left to seriously grapple with citizens’ most urgent needs. While Texas cities are by and large run by Democrats, their leadership tends to be—by necessity and by tradition—progressive but pragmatic. Think Julian Castro of San Antonio or Annise Parker of Houston.

In city government, the corrupting influence of corporate dollars doesn’t have the same reach, and citizens are simply more engaged. You go to a city council hearing and it’s packed with ordinary folks; you go to a legislative hearing and often you can’t find a seat not taken by a lobbyist.

And city government is about more than potholes and trash service. Cities are increasingly taking on the tasks that state and federal government won’t. A few examples:

The Texas Legislature is so overrun by money from predatory payday lenders that it refuses to impose even the most cursory of regulations to deal with runaway interest rates and a vicious cycle of debt. So this arcane area of consumer finance has fallen to the cities to deal with. At least 18 Texas cities have passed payday loan ordinances over the past three years, including conservative strongholds such as Midland. Unlike at the Legislature, the lenders’ arguments about tampering with the free market were unpersuasive compared to the outcry of faith groups, community activists and borrowers.

Also, the Lege has taken a completely laissez-faire attitude toward fracking, ignoring the complaints of residents around the state that drilling in sensitive and populated areas may have downsides that need to be addressed. Cities have tried to step up. In Denton, city leaders and a bunch of pissed-off citizens are considering desperate measures—including a total ban—to deal with the glut of fracking activity in the area. The City Council, which is mixed on the ban, has nonetheless imposed a moratorium on new drilling until September.

In San Antonio, Mayor Julian Castro, who is stepping down to become President Obama’s Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary, convinced voters to pass a bona fide tax increase in 2012 to help fund full-day pre-K—a response, in part, to cuts the Legislature made to its pre-K funding.

And in Austin, city and county officials are dealing with the thorny issue of how to finance the infrastructure needs of a boomtown without pricing working people out of the city. Property values are soaring, but wages aren’t keeping up. The lack of a state income tax and the stinginess of state budget writers means local governments must rely overwhelmingly on property taxes to pay for services, infrastructure and public schools. It’s never been a particularly equitable system, but cities like Austin, which are transforming from regional hubs to major-city status, are groaning under the burden. State lawmakers have designed a system that allows commercial property owners to wriggle out of paying their fair share, pushing more and more of the load onto homeowners.

Texas’ other big cities face similar problems with the state’s dysfunctional tax system. This is one that local government can’t solve without help from the Legislature.

“Local control”—a long-standing Texas tradition—shouldn’t mean “you’re on your own.”  

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Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • GOP Julie

    God forbid that “…local governments must rely overwhelmingly on property taxes to pay for services, infrastructure and public schools. …”

    • claytonauger

      It’s called regressive taxation, (i.e it hurts the poor more), and guess what “GOP Julie,” Republicans were among the biggest proponents of that tool of progressive taxation, the income tax.

      • GOP Julie

        This Republican is not in favor of the income tax.

  • GOP Julie

    Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, three others indicted; conspiracy to commit bribery alleged. That’s what progressive local politics will get you.

    • not_Bridget

      “Rick Perry—Republican Texas governor, failed 2012 presidential candidate, and potential 2016 retread contender—is battling legal trouble at home, thanks to his controversial veto that demolished the state office tasked with investigating political scandals.”

      http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/04/rick-perry-texas-grand-jury-investigation-public-integrity

      • GOP Julie

        Legal revenge initiated by the very state office that the Governor tried to abolish. Everyone in Texas knows that the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s office is nothing more than a kangaroo court. Rosemary Lehmberg is a drunk who has abused her office, and there’s video evidence to prove it.

        • claytonauger

          They’ve indicted way more D’s than R’s – just more Rs in state government now. But I bet you never bothered to count.

          • GOP Julie

            Rosemary Lehmberg is still a drunk and there’s video evidence to prove it. She’s not fit to serve or lead the Public Integrity Unit.

          • DavidD

            If she can put Perry away I’ll buy her a drink.

  • 1bimbo

    the cities are congested cesspools which breed abject poverty, pollution, drug abuse and violence.. cities have dismantled the middle class demographic due to gentrification and over-taxation by municipalities.. who are you people, that you think the cities are the model for quality of life?.. dumbdemocrats

    • unclejeems

      Sorry, but poverty, which pulls other evils down with it, is much more rampant in rural southern states. And of course there is, in addition, and ocean of willful ignorance, constant disdain for modern science, lack of education, religious intolerance of every stripe, and “pride” in a hateful system of human slavery that was soundly defeated one hundred and fifty years ago. Yeah, sure, who wouldn’t want to live in the country. Yeee-haw.

      • DavidD

        I do and I’m a Social Democrat.I love rural East Texas and I love the people here.Most of them have been very kind to me regardless of their political affiliation.
        Bimbo’s use of conflation and drama queen word salad is normal for her or quite possibly him.It can be laughed at and then ignored.
        Your charecterization of the rural south is overblown and overwrought.The vast majority of us down here have no desire to fight a stupid war all over again and avoid people with confederate paraphenalia about them as losers looking for trouble.
        The red state blue state is a genaralized therefore stupid meme thought up by a lazy media taken up by extreme elements from both sides so they can profit from hatred.
        The main problem we as a country face is the growing inequality of income,monopoly international capitalism and the inability of either party to deal with it.

        • 1bimbo

          i was succinct.. and as for your experience in east texas, it’s the same for small pockets of democrats who live peacefully with the majority of the lone star state. the best description of our state goes back decades and still applies today. too bad there’s no more democrats like this woman: ” ‘Texan’ frequently evokes images of conservatism, oil, gas, racism, callousness. In my judgment, the myths should be debunked, or at the least, should include the prevalent strains of reasonableness, compassion, and decency.” — barbara jordan

  • Jano Szabo

    “…convinced voters to pass a bona fide tax increase in 2012 to help fund full-day pre-K—a response, in part, to cuts the Legislature made to its pre-K funding.”

    One discredits a theory by demonstrating it leads to an absurd conclusion. Except, of course, in politics and religion. Members of the Church of School have concluded that the mass molding of students into uniform academic clones requires a new need: pre-K – presumably so the latent delinquent and delayed won’t fall behind the class of K.

    Next they’ll be prosecuting 17-year men and women who aren’t in school as truants.

  • http://s6.postimg.org/4gq9q4w7l/elemental_truth.jpg Truth Happens

    “Quick—name one innovation the Texas Legislature has produced in the last, say, three sessions.”

    You miss the real point. Legislatures do not innovate, citizens and businesses do. Rick Perry is fond of saying that the 50 states are “laboratories of innovation” where the real work of democracy occurs, because he knows what you seem to miss. “States” are comprised of people and by definition they are the underlying foundation of a democracy.

    • 1bimbo

      ‘I’m from Texas, and one of the reasons I like Texas is because there’s no one in control.’ — willie nelson