State lawmakers took aim at liberal local government overreach this past session, and they passed a slew of legislation hoping to rein in some of the worst of it.
Among the new laws is one ending forced annexation. For decades, city governments forcibly annexed property on their outskirts in a bid to grow their tax base—whether the property owners agreed or not. This anti-democratic practice was curtailed somewhat in 2017, but it wasn’t until this past legislative session that lawmakers fully ended it. Under the new rules, all home-rule cities must now hold an election—and win it—before grabbing any new land.
Two new laws will soon tap the brakes on how fast your tax bill can grow. Beginning in January 2020, cities, counties, and other taxing entities will not be allowed to increase their property tax revenues by more than 3.5% per year, unless voters say otherwise. Similarly, school district property taxes will soon be checked at 2.5% annual growth and every ISD must now perform an efficiency audit before asking voters to approve higher tax rates.
Another new law prevents cities from regulating lemonade stands run by children. And while it may seem like a small thing, it serves as a good illustration of just how intrusive local governments have grown, and why strong checks and balances are essential.
This is not to say that local governments are inherently bad. In fact, it’s pragmatic to have public administrators located so closely to the people. But a proper understanding of the nature of the relationship between states and local governments is crucial.
Let’s start with the obvious: State governments create local governments. The United States Constitution contains no reference to government at the local level—which necessarily means the states are responsible for creating and overseeing it. In Texas, state law makes this clear.
According to the Texas Constitution, counties are created by the state for the convenience of the people. And elsewhere in the Texas code, many other taxing units are categorized as “political subdivisions” of the state.
This inevitably implies the sovereignty of the state over the other governmental units within its boundaries. Therefore, the state is granted both the power—and arguably the responsibility—to keep these subdivisions from overstepping their bounds and limiting the freedom of the citizenry.
To quote James Madison, “The causes of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”
Madison recognized the importance of having localized government, but he also understood the dangers of faction, which occurs when smaller units of government begin acting in their own interest—often to the dismay of citizens and in disregard of the state as a whole.
A clear example of this is the profusion of local ordinances across Texas cities, dictating how businesses should operate. Companies that do business across multiple jurisdictions run into compliance issues as they attempt to abide by a massive patchwork of varying rules. Though not successful during the 86th session, action has been taken to pre-empt these ordinances with state-level legislation which would preserve the ability for business owners to run their companies as they see fit.
But ultimately, the lesson here is not that states get to wield power over their political subdivisions. This is not a moral unto itself.
The role of any level of government should be to protect the rights of individuals to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As Thomas Jefferson declared well over two centuries ago, the securing of these rights is why governments are instituted in the first place.
And when counties and cities—or any governmental entity—abandon this edict, they should be reined in by the correct avenues in order to preserve citizens’ individual liberties. That’s what state lawmakers did last session and, if necessary, hopefully what they’ll do in the years to come too.