Lawmaker Pushes for ‘Liberty Cities’


A version of this story ran in the June 2015 issue.

Greg Abbott launched his term as governor earlier this year by bucking a long-held GOP conviction: local control. Addressing a conservative policy foundation in Austin, Abbott said that liberty-depriving city regulations, such as a ban on plastic bags, are “a form of collectivism” that’s “eroding the Texas Model.”

Abbott’s give-me-plastic-bags-or-give-me-death declaration presented an ideological conundrum for Texas conservatives: How does one defend local control while denying municipalities the freedom to enact regulations preferred by local officials? Enter stage (far) right state Sen. Konni Burton (R-Colleyville), a liberty-loving hero.

Burton is pushing legislation designed to create a new type of municipality: a liberty city. A liberty city must be established on the principles of limited government, preservation of individual and property rights, and restrictions on debt and taxing authority, says Burton’s chief of staff, Art Martinez de Vara.

Martinez de Vara also happens to be the mayor of Von Ormy, a small town in southwest Bexar County. Von Ormy is the self-described “freest little city in Texas” and the first Texas city established precisely on the tenets outlined in Burton’s bill. Burton is so serious about the idea that she lists the principles as a “Bill of Rights” in her legislation.

The first “article” in the bill takes aim at city regulations. It states that liberty cities “shall not enact an ordinance, resolution, or similar measure, or take any action, that infringes on the basic absolute and essential rights of the people.” That raises important questions. Where do the “basic absolute and essential rights of the people” begin? Where do they end? And where on that spectrum does the inalienable right to carry home your groceries in a plastic sack fall? Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, says cities already can choose to limit regulations and taxes. “Nothing says [cities] have to have a property tax or do zoning,” Sandlin says. “The bill is probably unnecessary.”

Martinez de Vara disagrees. To understand what a liberty city looks like in practice, take a closer look at Von Ormy.

Von Ormy incorporated six years ago and has roughly 1,300 residents. Von Ormy has no city property taxes. It relies on sales tax revenue from several truck stops—I-35 passes through town—to pay for public services. Its animal control officer, firefighters, and most of the police force are volunteers.

Martinez de Vara said the city doesn’t charge residents fees for anything. So, what can we learn from Von Ormy? Well, the town won’t be denying anyone the right to carry plastic.

But if a wild cur or wildfire wreaks havoc within the city limits, the tax-averse, freedom-loving citizenry might well be on its own.