As Texas's big blue islands jutting out in the rural and suburban seas of red have only grown more pronounced, their relationship with state GOP leaders has only grown more strained — but perhaps that has not been more obviously on display than in the past few months, weeks and even days.
We're three days into the special legislative session, and already 18 mayors, including Houston's Sylvester Turner, have sent a letter to Governor Greg Abbott asking to set up a meeting ASAP. On Monday, Abbott unloaded on local government, saying many cities had become too "California-like" — Abbott's preferred insult — and that they were infringing on their citizens' freedoms and needed to be reeled in. He might as well have been talking about President Barack Obama or the Environmental Protection Agency, as suing the federal government for infringing on states' freedoms was among his favorite hobbies as attorney general.
"Private property rights used to mean something in the state of Texas. Increasingly we're finding that people in Texas are being diminished by local government ordinances," Abbott said, speaking before a room full of conservatives at a Texas Public Policy Foundation event. He added: "If we don't stop this real quick, we are in real danger of losing the standard as being the state for freedom, for free enterprise."
The mayors were listening. By the end of the day, they drafted the letter to Abbott expressing concern about his agenda for the special session that kicked off Tuesday. And it's as clear from the letter as it is from Abbott's aggressive comments during his speech: The theme of this session is the feud between big blue cities and big red state government.
"Texas cities are among the fastest growing in the country and play a critical role in the Texas economy," the mayors wrote to Abbott. "We believe that several of the proposals announced as part of the call for the 85th Special Legislative Session will directly impede the ability of Texas cities to provide vital services that reflect the priorities of local residents."
This is true of the bill proposing property tax cuts, the mayors note, and of the bill that would limit cities' annexation authority. It's true of the bathroom bill, which, if passed, would supersede any local ordinances protecting transgender people, such as the failed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. And it's even, or perhaps most especially, true of a bill that targets local tree ordinances. Trees. Trees somehow made it onto Abbott's list of 20 priorities for the special session, generally reserved for a small handful of high-profile pieces of legislation.
"There's an ideological conflict between the urban mayors in the large cities and the statewide conservative [leadership], no doubt. It's always been a conflict, but I'm surprised it hasn't been more fruitful until now," said David Branham, associate professor of political science at the University of Houston – Downtown. "The liberal Democrats would certainly take the opinion that the state is being hypocritical on this issue, infringing on their local freedoms. However, I think the point of view from the Republicans at the state level is that they're protecting individual freedoms and making sure local governments don't infringe on those. So it's a two-way argument."
The tree ordinance, as it happens, is probably the most illustrative of this conflict. And it's oddly personal for Abbott.
Back when he was installing a pool and building a bigger house in Austin, as the Texas Observer reported, he destroyed a pecan tree in the yard, despite instructions from the City of Austin to protect the pecan trees, which it considers "heritage trees." (It's the state tree of Texas.) As a result of breaking the rules, the city made him plant new trees. Apparently still seething over this six years later, Abbott tacked abolishing tree ordinances like this one onto his 20-item list, as though it weren't long enough already. He called tree regulations "socialist."
"Municipalities are saying they have the right to impose a fee on you for removing a tree, because if you remove a tree, you're diminishing the greater good of the city and the greater good of the environment," Abbott said during his speech. "They have articulated the per se definition of collectivism, socialism. That must be eradicated and stopped in the state of Texas."
Branham said that Abbott has missed the irony inherent in his case for overriding local tree ordinances. If Abbott is so seriously valuing personal freedoms of property owners, what about personal freedoms of transgender people?
"If you should have the ability, for instance, to cut down any tree you want on your property, then that's personal freedom that you don’t want others to intervene on," the professor said. "The ability to go into a bathroom of your choice is also a personal freedom that you don't want others to intervene on. When you see Governor Abbott wanting personal freedoms on trees, but not wanting personal freedom on bathrooms, that seems like a contradiction, and I don't think there's a good argument to say that it isn't."
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Debate on these issues has not formally begun. The first order of business is passing a couple of technical bills that will extend the lifelines of key state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board. It's the only piece of legislation required to pass.
Mayor Sylvester Turner took the time to respond to Governor Abbott's local government comments in a flurry of tweets earlier this week, appearing hopeful that the governor will quit his anti-city-government antics.
"There was a time when local control meant something in Texas," he said. "I hope Legislators will give meaning to local control again."