AUSTIN — Led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Senate, Texas lawmakers continue to put local governments and school districts under a microscope.
The read out: Many of the Legislature’s most conservative members don’t like what they see.
On Monday, a Senate panel heard accusations that city governments abusively have tried to squelch ballot initiatives and complaints that school districts and other local taxing entities too often aren’t candid when they ask voters to approve bond issues.
It was a preview of more fights to come in next year’s legislative session over bonded indebtedness and local control on issues that include transgender people in bathrooms, red-light cameras and fluoride in the drinking water.
Last fall, Patrick asked the Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee to study whether more information about proposed local borrowing should be provided to citizens in the voting booth and whether about 300 “home rule” cities have too much leeway in flicking off unwelcome referendum petitions.
Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican, said he asked Patrick to issue the “interim charge” on bond election ballot information because local debt is growing too fast in Texas.
Last year, he authored a Senate-passed measure that would require bond issue propositions to state how much total debt the local entity has assumed, and how much property tax the average homeowner would have to pay to defray existing debt and repay the proposed bonds. It died in the House.
James Quintero of the free market-oriented Texas Public Policy Foundation supports the legislation and said it ought to go further. It should include a requirement that ballot language inform voters of the total principal and interest payments over the life of the bond issue, Quintero said.
In 2014, a bond issue proposition passed in the McKinney school district didn’t specify that $50 million would go to a new high school football stadium, he said.
Daniel Combs, assistant superintendent in Alvin schools near Houston, though, said state aid for school facilities has dwindled. Many districts have no choice but to borrow to build new campuses to keep apace of population growth, he said.
Months before a bond vote, the Alvin district creates a 60-member advisory panel, mails newsletters, creates a website and runs local newspaper ads to inform voters, he said.
“However, inside the voting booth isn’t the place to provide all the facts,” said Combs, who represented the Fast Growth Schools Coalition, a group of 70 districts that included Frisco and Allen.
“The ballot is the point of decision and not the point of education,” he said.
On ballot initiatives over home rule city ordinances, Bettencourt elicited detailed testimony about all of the hurdles shoved into religious conservatives’ path before they successfully upended a Houston gay rights ordinance in November.
He chided former Houston Mayor Annise Parker and former Houston City Attorney David Feldman for overzealous defense of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO. The Houston city council passed the ordinance in 2014. Among other things, it barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
In a civil suit over opponents’ petitions for a referendum to overturn the measure, a large law firm working without pay for the city issued a subpoena for the sermons of five pastors who opposed the ordinance, Bettencourt noted.
“When government goes this far, it’s not even past stop signs, … we’ve gone into the twilight zone,” he said.
Lawyer Andy Taylor, who represented HERO opponents, said cities should provide uniform petition applications and give organizers the same amount of time to gather signatures. He recommended 180 days – more than four times what Houston allows.
Citizens also should have recourse if municipal officials “don’t play it straight” in crafting clear, concise ballot language, he said.
“We’ve all grown up hearing, ‘You can’t beat City Hall,'” Taylor said. “We need the Legislature to change that so you can beat City Hall.”
He urged a “loser pays” law, which would make cities pay legal fees for petition organizers who successfully challenge municipal actions on ballot measures.
Bill Longley of the Texas Municipal League, though, said lawmakers should be careful.
The costs would fall back on taxpayers, he noted.
Sam Brandon of San Marcos, who has helped lead a drive for a successful 2015 referendum to remove fluoride from his Central Texas city’s drinking water, said lawmakers should consider slapping criminal penalties on high-handed behavior by city officials trying to chill public participation in policy setting.
“You’ve got to remove the immunity from these people,” he said.
Cities and counties are almost always on the defensive at the Legislature. But last year, newly installed Gov. Greg Abbott raised the stakes by saying that Texas cities were causing the state to be “California-ized” by “ridiculous, unnecessary” regulations.
Countering Denton’s municipal vote to ban fracking, lawmakers tightly restricted what cities can do to regulate oil and gas drilling operations.
In May, some state GOP leaders sharply criticized the decision of Austin voters to reject a proposal, backed by ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft, to get rid of the city’s rules that require fingerprint-based background checks.
Georgetown GOP Sen. Charles Schwertner, blasting cities for creating a “patchwork of inconsistent and anti-competitive regulations,” announced he will file a bill next year to create statewide rules for ride-sharing companies.