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.”