While State Hoards Cash, Texas Cities Borrow

Ask almost any Texans living north of Greater Houston and they can tell you… 2015 has been an exceptionally rough winter for the Lone Star State.  North Texas is just now thawing out from a rare March snowfall, in a year that has seen record winter events.

But long after this (hopefully) final bit of snow melts, municipal governments will still be working to deal with the storm’s aftermath. The exceptional Winter has ravaged Texas roads, leaving a staggering number of potholes and other damage to city and county infrastructures.

Fixing that damage is sure to be costly, and as things appear now, those additional costs are of no concern to state lawmakers in Austin.

Cold weather is only the latest challenge that Texas cities and counties have had to shoulder with little-if-any support from the Legislature.  As Aman Batheja of the Texas Tribune reports, the state’s momentous growth has left municipalities on the hook to keep up…

While state coffers are so flush with cash that Texas lawmakers might leave billions unspent this year, local governments are continuing to borrow heavily to provide services in a fast-growing state.

Between September 2013 and August 2014, local governments in Texas borrowed more than $5 billion, bringing the total local debt statewide to $205 billion, according to the Texas Bond Review Board.


State legislators have noticed — and they’re taking action.

More than a dozen bills have been filed this legislative session aimed at restricting how counties, cities and school districts can borrow money.


While some lawmakers have argued that local entities should do more to live within their means, cities, counties and school districts have countered that it’s the belt-tightening at the state level that pushes more costs further down the line.

“Cities are expected to be doing more of the state’s old jobs like building roads and reservoirs,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. “It is a bit hypocritical in that regard.”

Lawmakers at the Capitol are all too quick to criticize cities for having to borrow money, while they simultaneously tout the “Texas Miracle”, hoard cash away for themselves, and demand massive property tax cuts at the expense of higher sales taxes.

The one discussion they’ve yet to have in Austin??  If any of that state surplus will be used to aid Texas cities with the massive task of actually making this state work.  And sure Governor Abbott has at least said that the state’s roads and schools should be top priorities for the session.  But he has yet to explain how this additional spending will be funded if the $4.5 Billion in tax cuts goes through as well.

Perhaps he wants cities to take out debt for those too.

Local Control Texas Launches, Builds Support

As previously discussed, the opposition by city and county leaders to Texas-style Big Government has formed.

Launched just this week, the group Local Control Texas has already proven to be quite the diverse group.  Whether Liberal or Conservative, urban or rural, all have united because they recognize that recent actions by Governor Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and many Austin Lawmakers are harmful to Texas communities.  They’re keeping an updated list of the staggering number intrusive bills already filed during the 84th session.

Here’s an excerpt from the group’s letter to the Texas Legislature

Governor Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Patrick, Speaker Straus and
State Legislators:

We are writing to urge you to limit state government interference with local government policymaking, especially when it comes to quality of life policies. Communities around this state have to balance competing interests, and drawing from different perspectives and values they have arrived at different policies on issues as diverse as single-use bag pollution, heritage trees, oil and gas production, historic preservation, smoking in public places, sexually oriented businesses, payday lending and vagrancy. In most of these cases, the state has offered little to no assistance in alleviating the challenge that municipalities face. We ask that you refrain from hindering local governments’ abilities to serve the interests of their residents by pre-empting possible solutions on these issues.

We, the undersigned, do not all agree on any particular policy on any of these issues, but we are united in a firm opposition to any attempt by the Legislature or Governor to tell our respective communities how we should deal with these issues. In each of these cases local governments and our neighborhoods are shouldering these burdens with little to no help from the state government.

The group encourages all supporters to email their state legislators, and join the cause.  With now fully-organized opposition to these brazen moves, it will be difficult for Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick to turn a blind eye to the issue of local control.

And umm, just for the record, not a single one of these bills was filed by a Democrat.

Visit the website localcontroltexas.org for more.

Texoblogosphere: Week of March 2nd

The Texas Progressive Alliance thinks the dress is blue and black and that the llamas should get their own TV show as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Off the Kuff notes that Republican hostility to local control doesn’t extend to the proposed high speed rail line, where a bill to give cities and counties a virtual veto over it has been filed.

Libby Shaw writing for Texas Kaos and a contributor to Daily Kos is not surprised by the Texas Republican’s cruel contempt for immigrant families and Obamacare. TX Gov. Celebrates Busting Up Immigrant Families while U.S. Senator Licks Chops for Gutted Obamacare.

Stace at DosCentavos reports on the League of Women Voters-Houston’s discussion on Low Voter Turnout.

CouldBeTrue of South Texas Chisme is appalled at the anti-citizen ignorance of McAllen City Commissioner’s candidate, Debbie Crane Aliseda, who equates early voting to voter fraud.  What’s worse?  Other candidates echoed her ignorance.

A hot rumor about Adrian Garcia declaring for mayor of Houston turned out to be only that, but PDiddie at Brains and Eggs — as someone really well-connected once said — “ran the traps on everything”. (A city council candidate did announce at that same breakfast meeting, for whatever that might be worth.)

From WCNews at Eye on Williamson. The Texas GOP gutted public education which caused a budget surplus. Instead of putting the money back they want to give it to the wealthy and big business, Doing Away With What They Believe Is Unnecessary.

Neil at All People Have Value took a walk and looked up at the things above him. APHV is part of NeilAquino.com.


And here are some other posts of interest from other Texas blogs.

Texas Vox calls for more support for solar energy from the Lege.

Better Texas Blog calculates the cost of cutting the business margins tax.

Juanita has a good laugh over a kerfuffle involving male strippers at an antique show in Fayette County.

Nonsequiteuse would like Republicans to stay out of her bathroom.

Grits for Breakfast recounts how the DPS “border surge” caused an increase in crime elsewhere.

Texas Clean Air Matters reminds us that Texas is very good at energy efficiency and should do more of it.

The TSTA Blog asks if anything will be left for the schools.

Raise Your Hand Texas comments on the filing of quality pre-K bills in the Legislature.

The Lunch Tray is fed up with those photos of “school lunches around the world”.

Randy Bear endorses Mike Villarreal for Mayor of San Antonio.


This week’s feature photo is of Bethel Park in Houston, Texas.

After Reimagining Approval, Challenges Remain For METRO

There’s no doubt that the top-to-bottom redesign of Houston’s bus system was the result of lots of hard work.  Since its approval last month, System Reimagining has received national media attention, mostly in the form of high praise from transit enthusiasts and critics alike.

But plans on a page are one issue.  Bringing the new bus network into reality is an entirely different animal, particularly in the case of Houston.

Jarrett Walker, the transit guru that led the design team for Reimagining, is not a native Houstonian or even Houston resident.  But from his interview with NPR, and via his blog Human Transit, he seems to have a grasp of the unique issues surrounding Houston mobility

Houston had it much worse than most cities, for some local reasons.  Along the northeast edge of inner Houston, for example, are some neighborhoods where the population has been shrinking for years.   They aren’t like the typical abandoned American inner cities of the late 20th century, where at least there is still a good street grid that can be rebuilt upon.  In the northeast we were looking at essentially rural infrastructure, with no sidewalks and often not even a safe place to walk or stand by the road.  Many homes are isolated in maze-like subdivisions that take a long time for a bus, or pedestrian, to get into and out of.  And as the population is falling, the area is becoming more rural every year.


Houston’s situation is worse than most; less sprawling cities can generally prevent any part of the city from depopulating in the context of overall growth.  But in any city there are going to be less fortunate areas, and the disastrous trend called the “suburbanization of poverty” means that increasing numbers of vulnerable people are forced to live in places that are geometrically hostile to high-ridership transit, and thus demand low-ridership coverage service.

For all of the reasons Walker states, these same impoverished areas are the ones that will be most negatively affected by the System Reimagining plan.  But the challenge for METRO is that these low-density areas also represent a significant portion of the agency’s current ridership… residents that are fully reliant on the bus system, and have fewer alternative transit options than those in other parts of the service area. If the new system all but discourages the current ridership base, could Reimagining backfire on METRO??

METRO has placed a tremendous bet on the Greater Houston area… if given the option will people that do not need the bus choose to ride the bus?  It’s an question that no one has the answers to at this time.  But judging by current trends across the area, this assumption is not a very safe bet.

To make matters worse, METRO doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of critical time they have to educate riders about the new system.  Save for a few vague English-language fliers, the expansive advertising and materials effort for Reimagining has yet to commence.  With the Houston Rodeo now happening in full swing, early March would seem an essential time to get the word out about the redesign, as it is the month where our area experiences its highest MetroRail ridership of the year.  And granted, plenty of riders will be visitors to the city, but many more will be the very people METRO would hope to lure onto new bus service this Fall.

Conversely, the education effort is also behind for affected communities where services are going to change, or be lost altogether.  It will take a massive amount of outreach to citizens in Northeast Houston so that they are informed when these changes occur.  Some citizens have already suggested METRO will be charged with discrimination if these services are cut.

At this point, it’s too early to predict how System Reimagining will be received by the Houston region.  But one thing is quite clear. The work of METRO and its partner agencies is just beginning.  Let’s hope that work picks up steam very soon.

Off the Kuff has more on System Reimagining.

Metro New

A METRO flyer about the new bus system.



Big Government Texas Part 3: The Fight For Local Control

Ask anyone in Texas… we know that it is a B-I-G state.  By land area, it’s the largest in the lower 48 and by population the second largest in the nation.  Along with huge numbers come huge amounts of diversity. We may all be Texans, but that’s about the only thing most of us have in common.  People across this state live in very different places, and have very different challenges.

Which is why municipal and county governance is so critical to the success of the state.  A humid, coastal metro like Houston doesn’t have the same water challenges as a community like Wichita Falls. Devising a school lunch plan for the 921 students in Lone Oak ISD is a different experience than planning and preparing to feed the 158,000 students of Dallas ISD.

But apparently, some state leaders want to change this practice.  As Tom Benning of the Dallas Morning News reports, Texas Republicans seem to have some major hypocrisy at work.  After practically forging their careers by telling Washington to get out of the way of Texas governance, many lawmakers in Austin now want to snatch all semblance of local control away from Texas city and county governments.

With top Republicans talking openly about limiting municipalities’ control and even crimping their budgets, mayors, city managers, county judges and others have started to raise the alarm.


A new slate of statewide leaders — including Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — spelled uncertainty from the get-go for Texas municipalities.

But Abbott, in a speech before his inauguration, hammered away at cities for “unchecked overregulation” and argued that they’re causing Texas to be “California-ized.” He pointed specifically to shopping bag ordinances — such as the one Dallas just implemented — and Denton’s fracking ban.

Patrick’s push to effectively reduce growth in the amount of property tax revenue cities can collect has local budget-writers concerned. Supporters say that effort will provide Texans with long overdue property tax relief.

Thankfully during this legislative session, the situation in Austin is starting to get noticed across the state.  The Texas Standard with Asher Price reports on Local Control Texas… a new coalition that has organized to push back against Governor Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Patrick’s plans…

The group came together from different parts of Texas… some environmental groups in Central Texas, and Republicans from other parts of the state.  They are worried, for one reason or another that the state should not be stepping on local communities that pass these ordinances.


They’re just at the start of their work, but they are getting in touch with local representatives, and trying to raise money to do this work.  They are going to local communities to have them pass resolutions [expressing] displeasure with proposed legislation at the Capitol.

The list of bills to curtail local powers is becoming quite staggering.  Among them are proposed legislation that would strip county clerks of their salaries for issuing same-sex marriage licenses, or just force all marriage licenses to come from the Capitol, removing the duty from county clerks altogether.

Push-back against Austin is affecting every corner of the state.

If this is the trajectory of Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick’s Big Government, residents have to wonder where their tyrannical power-grab can be stopped.  Let’s hope that groups like Local Control Texas are effective in stemming the tide.

On this Texas Independence Day— 179 years after the Republic of Texas was created on March 2nd 1836, perhaps state leaders could do themselves a favor and be reminded why that nation and state came to be in the first place…


(photo credit:  SMU archives)


(feature photo credit:  Wikimedia commons)


UPDATE:  I felt it important on this issue to include some comments from the Republican perspective.  Jay Leeson, a journalist from West Texas, writes his views on the issue of Austin-style Big Government, via Texas GOP Vote.  Here is an excerpt from that…

To put a conservative label on proposals that undercut local control presents a paradox that would keep Augustus McCrae talking all night and a satire Will Rogers or Molly Ivins couldn’t script (but would probably describe as a form of Edmund Davis strong central state Reconstruction Republicanism— without the noble guiding principle, devised with economic crayons).

FOR A GROWING NUMBER OF WEST TEXANS these caps proposals are two more recent samplings of incompatibilities between this new brand of Republicanism and rural values.

Undoubtedly in the next week, we’ll be told and scorecard cajoled that for the cause of liberty and defeating local tyrants these conservative, good government proposals should be supported.

But they ain’t good government, and they ain’t very conservative.

On this point, I can say that we agree.