Policy Spotlight: The Politics of Local Control
The thing about cities is that most people live in them. And they’re pretty happy with their city governments. So why, for the last few legislative sessions, have state leaders been so hostile to local government?
The anti-city crusade reached a new high (or was it a new low?) recently, when state lawmakers publicly announced their intentions to throttle local revenue for any city that would dare reduce its law enforcement budget – even during a revenue crunch. With sad irony, this comes when the state itself is making significant cuts to support for local law enforcement. Really. They even criticized the City of Dallas for proposing to trim police overtime, even though the City actually proposed an overall increase in police funding.
Having thus dispensed with the question of sincerity, let’s consider the call to ban cities from contracting with professionals to fix traffic lights. Wait that’s not it. Lawyers? No. Engineers? No. But many state leaders have called for legislation that would ban cities and counties from contracting with professionals to perform an essential function of local government: advocating in the state Legislature. Those professionals are called “lobbyists”. Companies hire them. Non-profit advocacy groups hire them. Individual projects hire them (e.g., the bullet train). And cities large and small hire them too. Always have. Should they? Maybe, maybe not. That’s a question of local, not state, policy. It is for you and your city councilmembers to assess whether hiring a lobbyist for a particular issue serves the interests of local citizens.
What we have here is politics driving policy. That’s bad. The idea that state government would review city budgets should scare any skeptic of big government. That the state would actually take over law enforcement at the local level … whoa (who’s going to pay for that, anyway?). Banning cities from contracting with legislative advocates is akin to banning companies from hiring outside lawyers, or banning homeowners from hiring tax consultants to help with protests. The whole narrative undermines the spirit of 100+ years of successful local control.
Pitting state government against local government is just bad policy. It results in an over-stretched state government that’s ill-equipped to handle local issues consistent with local needs and character. It tempts state lawmakers to blame local officials for state failures (like rising property taxes). And it raises serious questions about racial equity, as representation in cities and counties tends to be more reflective of local demographics.
We can’t have it both ways. The state doesn’t have the resources or expertise to run local affairs. If the public wants state government to manage everything, we’re going to need a bigger state government. I don’t think that’s what Texans want. I know I don’t.