WESLACO, RGV – A top official with the Texas Municipal League is set to visit the Rio Grande Valley to discuss with local municipal leaders what the group calls Gov. Greg Abbott’s “war on cities.”

Valley officials invited the lobbyist to a meeting scheduled on Thursday at the Weslaco Economic Development Corporation offices at 275 S. Kansas Ave. Suite A, Weslaco,
to discuss Abbott’s special session agenda that they believe will have a negative impact on cities.

Rolando Vela, the city manager of Laguna Vista, organized a meeting last week at the LRGVDC to gather local support against a range of bills that target municipalities, and committed to bringing more officials to this week’s meeting.

Shanna Igo

In early June, Governor Abbott called for a special session on July 18, which could last up to 30 days, to pass legislation on his agenda.

In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Shanna Igo, deputy executive director for legislative services at the Texas Municipal League, said she doesn’t normally leave Austin during a special legislative session, but meeting with TML members in the Valley was crucial to understand local leaders concerns over the bills.

“I’m excited about coming down just so I could see these city officials face to face,” Igo said. “I work with them in over the course of the interim a lot, that the middle of the special session, I’m making a special exception to leave town, which I never do, because I think its important for me to sit and visit with them and make sure that we still completely understand the depth of their concerns so I could relay that to the people in Austin.”

The director emphasized that it’s very difficult to influence legislation outside of Austin with the constant changes the legislature makes.

“And even though that they’re talking to their state reps and state senators its not the same as being on the ground here in Austin everyday seeing all the details about what goes on and things happen so fast at the capital that you really have to be up here paying attention and be in the capital in order to influence the process,” Igo said.

The purpose of the meeting is to discuss 10 out of the 20 bills on Governor Abbott’s agenda that target municipalities, and how Valley representatives can change the outcome of those bills, according to Igo.

The major bills that Valley leaders and TML are concerned about include Senate Bill 1, which prevents cities from raising property taxes above a certain tax rate, Senate Bill 18, creates spending caps on municipalities, and Senate Bill 6, which limits annexation law.

Igo says the governor has been waging war against cities for two years with these types of legislation.

“The governor declared war on cities starting about two years ago before the last regular session,” Igo said. “He has decided that local governments are the enemy of the state, why he feels that way we don’t know. It’s a very myopic view of the world.”

Cities are vital to the Texas economy, Igo said, especially voters who elect local officials to address city services and immediate needs.

“Everyone knows that cities are the economic engines of the state that that’s where people live and work, that’s where people get their basic needs met,” Igo said. “Those citizens that live in these cities have elected their mayors and council members to take care of those immediate needs, the water, the sewer, the fire and police. Those citizens are really good at voting in and voting out mayors and council members that are not upholding the wishes of the communities.”

Igo doesn’t know Governor Abbott’s motives behind these bills, but suggests there’s a national trend on ‘micromanaging’ liberal cities in Republican states.

“We don’t know why the governor has decided to micromanage cities,” Igo said. “We do note there’s a national trend that other states seem to be doing some of the same things that they’re micromanaging cities and some of it is because they see the cities as Democrats. Because in the large cities you have a lot of democrat mayors and the republicans are now in charge and they are targeting cities because of those democrat mayors.”

Igo continues that governor will also affect Republican city mayors, who are the majority in Texas, which she says will soon backlash.

“But I would suggest in Texas that after all the years I’ve been doing this, but up to 80 percent of mayors are Republican,” Igo said. “They’re small city, small government type of people that think the government closes to the people is the best form of government and they’re very conservative. They don’t ever go in and just raise tax rates in order just for the heck of it because they have to answer to their voters and they’re very conservative and what they’re responding to are what the needs of that community is. And so for the governor to take in stride this nation wide movement to pound on local government seems like its gonna backfire.”

When asked what she thought when Governor Abbott said he preferred the countryside of Texas over bigger cities while quickly taking credit for tech companies investing in the state, she thought it was hypocritical.

“It is hypocrisy if not schizophrenic,” Igo said. “On one hand he wants to hammer cities and on the other hand he wants to take credit when anything good happens in a city. The state has always given economic development incentives to cities in order to help attract big businesses and every time that happens the governor is the first one that takes credit even though a majority of those economic development funds come from the city or the county.”

Igo said 12,000 people move into the state of Texas everyday, and mostly in bigger cities compared to the countryside. She said people love Texas and want to move to state, but legislation on Gov. Abbott’s agenda will not help municipalities, and each city has different needs.

“Alabama doesn’t look like Texas and Texas doesn’t look like Oregon, and Houston doesn’t look like Dallas, and Dallas doesn’t look like Nacogdoches, and so you know to say that we have to have one size fits all so that we all look a like is kind of an astounding statement seeing how none of the states look a like well none of the cities look a like,” Igo said.

TML Talking Points

The Texas Municipal League has produced a handout that lists the legislation it opposes in the first-called special session. Here are the contents in the document:

The list of issues in the Governor’s proclamation for the special session represents an all-out assault on the ability of Texas voters to decide what’s best for their communities and their neighborhoods.

From imposing revenue caps and spending caps, to overriding tree ordinances and texting while driving ordinances, no one has ever proposed such sweeping restrictions on local voters having a voice in shaping the character of their communities.

Seventy-four percent of Texans live in 1,215 towns and cities. The local decisions made by Texas voters created a formula for economic success that is the envy of the nation. Stifling the voices of Texans through an all-powerful overreaching state government will lead to economic decline and seriously damage the quality of life in urban areas.

Because every city in Texas is unique, legislators should leave decision on the following issues at the local level:

Revenue Caps (SB 1 by Bettencourt and HB 4 by Bonnen)

Cities are not the cause of high property taxes in Texas because cities collect only 16 percent of the property taxes paid by Texans statewide. That is why imposing a state cap on city revenues will not provide any meaningful tax relief. The real problem is skyrocketing local school taxes caused by the state’s failure to adequately fund education. The burden of local school district taxes will continue to grow over the next two years. While trying to mislead Texans and shift the blame to cities, the legislature approved a state budget in May that calls for a nearly 14 percent increase in local school property taxes.

Imposing a statewide cap on city revenues will not provide tax relief for homeowners but it will harm public safety, job creation and transportation funding. The largest item in every city budget is funding for police, fire fighting and emergency medical services – as much as 70 percent of the budget in some cities. Any state restrictions on city budgets will impact the ability to hire more personnel, improve salaries and benefits, upgrade technology and replace outdated equipment.

State restrictions on city revenues will reduce or eliminate discretionary spending on economic development incentives that help attract and retain job-creation businesses. Revenue restrictions will force cities to reduce or eliminate local funds that subsidize state highway construction projects which will increase traffic problems in urban areas.

Spending Caps (SB 18 by Estes and HB 206 by Villalba)

Imposing one-size-fits-all cap on the budget of every Texas city would be a disaster for Texans for many of the same reasons that apply to revenue caps. Texans should continue to decide at the local level what is best for their community.

The bills filed would limit spending growth to population growth plus inflation. Yet the level of services and spending desired by the residents of any community can vary significantly from year to the next. In addition, city governments are large employers and service providers. Their expenditures for street repairs, heavy equipment, lawsuits and employee training, pensions and health insurance are vastly different from the expenditures of a typical household.

Cities in the Panhandle must budget for snow removal which can vary from year to year. Cities that attract a large number of visitors, like San Antonio and the cities on the Gulf Coast, must provide services to more people than their resident population.

Setting one statewide spending cap that applies to every city in a state as vast and diverse as Texas is simply unworkable. The limitations on law enforcement, firefighting and emergency medical services would endanger public safety. Restricting spending for maintaining streets, parks and water, sewage and drainage systems would make Texas cities less livable and less attractive to potential employers and investors.

State legislators should trust Texans to make decisions on the local level of services they want in their community and their neighborhood.

Ending annexation (SB 6 by Campbell and HB 6 by Huberty)

Since the creation of home rule cities in Texas over 100 years ago, the process of municipal annexation has produced dynamic cities that are among the nation’s leaders in job creation and economic growth. The annexation process has proven to be the most effective and efficient way to deal with population growth and provide the essential services needed by residents and businesses.

Legislation that would allow unincorporated subdivisions to veto annexations plans would effectively freeze the current boundaries of Texas cities and begin a process of urban decline that doomed cities in other states.

When cities can’t grow, they die. When the city core begins to deteriorate, it affects the entire metropolitan region making it harder to attract and keep job-creating businesses. The slower job growth and lower incomes infect the entire state economy. A study conducted by the economic analysis firm, TXP, Inc., last year found that states that restrict annexation had lower personal income and economic growth and lower municipal bond ratings.

If the legislature had passed the proposed annexation restrictions 50 years ago, Texas today would not have cities that lead the nation in job growth and business relocations. We would not have cities with vibrant downtowns attracting people with commerce, the arts, entertainment, shopping and nightlife.

Banning local safe driving ordinances (SB 15 by Huffines and HB 171 by Goldman)

It took the state legislature more than a decade to finally pass a statewide law this year on the use of cell phones while driving. During this time, citizens in many Texas cities pushed for adoption of local ordinances to deal with the increasing number of traffic accidents caused by distracted drivers. Many of those local ordinances are more comprehensive than the recently passed state law, which contains a number exceptions and loopholes. If Texans decide they want their community to have more safety precautions than provided by state law, they should be allowed to make that choice and not have their local traffic safety rules overridden by the state.

Overriding local permitting rules (SB 12 by Buckingham, SB 13 by Burton; HB 188 by Bell; and HB 164 by Workman)

City ordinances on the issuance of a wide variety of permits are adopted in an open and transparent process that seeks input from residents and businesses. The resulting rules are tailored to the needs and concerns of the local community.

One set of these bills would backdate the grandfathering of permit vesting to the date the property was acquired. The second group would vastly accelerate permit deadlines on the city with automatic approval as the penalty.

Any claims that cities have restricted economic growth through local permitting rules are simply absurd based on all the economic indicators that show Texas cities are booming. Three out of four new jobs in Texas are created in the state’s major urban areas because they provide the services, the facilities and infrastructure businesses and their employees need to thrive. State government should not mess with the obvious success Texas cities have achieved in attracting and growing job-creating businesses.

Every Texas city is proudly unique.

Texans don’t want to be told they must confirm to one way of thinking or one way of living by overreaching big-government politicians – whether it comes from Washington or from Austin.

Let Texans decide at the local level what’s best for their community.