Abbott’s Texas stomps Austin, local governments

Governor Greg Abbott speaks before signing his new book ‘Broken but Unbowed’ as he launches his book tour at the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation. Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Welcome to Gov. Abbott’s Texas, where the state bullies local governments to bend to its will and strangles efforts of local people to govern themselves. That sounds surreal, but it is not a stretch if Abbott gets his way.

The Texas Tribune reported this week that Abbott is proposing a “rifle-shot” law to pre-empt regulations of cities and counties that run counter to the state’s interest. Such an approach would wreck the current democratic process in which the Legislature publicly debates local ordinances before either validating them or striking them down.

Here is what Abbott told the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, an Austin-based think tank, during a Q&A session at the group’s meeting in Corpus Christi.

“As opposed to the state having to take multiple rifle-shot approaches at overriding local regulations, I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says across the board, the state is going to pre-empt local regulations, is a superior approach,” The Tribune reported.

Abbott added that such an approach, “makes it more simple, more elegant, but more importantly, provides greater advance notice to businesses and to individuals that you’re going to have the certainty to run your lives.”

Yes, Governor, democracy is messy, tedious and time-consuming. But that is what the framers of the Constitution had in mind in setting up a system to ensure that ideas are debated in the public square in front of the people so presumably the best ones would prevail.

A sweeping law aimed at diluting or eroding that process is antithetical to the Constitution.

Our democratic system was not intended to be “elegant,” or means of granting “notice to businesses and individuals” so as to provide certainty in their practices or lives, as the governor seems to believe. And the notion that elected lawmakers need some kind of break in doing the jobs we elected and pay them to do – pass laws – is misguided.

Aside from being imprudent, Abbott’s proposal is unnecessary as the limits of municipalities, such as the city of Austin, and all 254 Texas counties, are spelled out in the state’s constitution and legal principles, as Austin attorney and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire, notes.

“The Texas Constitution and statutes establish different legal principles regarding power of cities and counties,” Aleshire told me Wednesday.

“The principle for home-rule cities is that they have any power necessary for protection for the health, welfare, or safety of the city residents that is not prohibited by state law. The opposite is true for counties, which only have power that is granted to them by state law.”

In other words, home-rule cities, such as Austin, can legally ban plastic bags, require Uber and Lyft to fingerprint their drivers and regulate short-term rentals as those are areas in which the state has not established regulations, with the exception of some restrictions on plastic bag bans. So none of Austin’s local ordinances in such areas violate state regulations.

And if the state does extend its reach in those areas as some Republicans in the Legislature now are attempting to do, Austin’s ordinances would have to come into compliance with state law. The city could, however, decide to challenge state law in court. In either scenario, the current democratic system works in handling such issues.

As for Travis County, no doubt Abbott is madder than hell over new policies of Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez to deny most requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain jail inmates for federal immigration checks before releasing them.

I say that because counties have so little authority in general and already are limited to doing what the state prescribes. So Abbott’s proposal with regard to counties makes no sense. That is especially true since state lawmakers now are considering a law to require Texas sheriffs to fully comply with all ICE detainers or fine them civilly or criminally if they don’t.

As it now stands, Hernandez is only honoring ICE requests when the inmate is charged with one of four crimes: capital murder, murder, aggravated sexual assault or continuous human smuggling.

Again, our current legislative process – including debate and public meetings – is handling the local initiative that has Abbott all riled up. Austin and Travis County leaders might not agree with the Legislature’s response to Hernandez’s ICE policy, but even Hernandez has said she would follow state law under such circumstances, meaning she would honor ICE detainers if that is the law.

As a former state supreme court justice and attorney general for Texas, Abbott should know that upheaval, disruption and disagreement are part of the formula for a healthy democracy. And can you even imagine the reaction of Abbott, who worships at the altar of states’ rights, if the federal government struck that posture with Texas?

And let’s face it, some of the most autocratic countries in the world are the ones with the most certainty and predictability for their people, government and businesses. Like North Korea.