Dan Patrick: lieutenant governor or viceroy?

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick presides over the Texas Senate during the final days of the 84th Texas legislature regular session in May, 2015 at the Texas state capitol in Austin. (Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News)

 

Maybe we should change Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s title to viceroy.

That seems appropriate since he is acting more like a ruler exercising control over colonies – Texas cities and counties – than a statewide elected leader interested in solving the big problems and challenges facing Texas, such as the state’s broken school finance system, the high number of Texans who are uninsured when it comes to healthcare – including one of four women – and soaring school property taxes that are choking Texas homeowners.

Instead of the latter, Patrick has focused on dissembling representative democracy of cities and counties by overruling their elected leadership and supplanting their policies with his own. That is what viceroys do.

If the public has not gotten that message in the anti-local governing measures Patrick swiftly passed in the Senate during the regular and special sessions — some handed down from our sovereign governor — he made it crystal clear last week on the Fox Business Network.

“People are happy with their governments at the state level. They’re not with their cities,” Patrick said.

That’s bizarre, since it is we, the people, who elect mayors and city councils. And when we’re not happy, we turn them out of office. But Patrick’s statement went further:

“Our cities are still controlled by Democrats. And where do we have all our problems in America? Not at the state level run by Republicans, but in our cities that are mostly controlled by Democrat (sic) mayors and Democrat city councilmen and women. That’s where you see liberal policies. That’s where you see high taxes. That’s where you see street crime. The only place Democrats have control are in our cities, and they are doing a terrible job.”

Got that? It’s the cities that are run by Democrats that are causing all the trouble.

It’s obvious to anyone paying attention that Patrick’s disdain for Democrats is a form of code-switching aimed at conveying to his base – white, socially-conservative Christians – that those “Democrat” people are what’s wrong with Texas and the nation.

His use of the term “Democrat” is a euphemism for people who call themselves Democrats. And we know who those people are. In the Lone Star State, and the country, they tend to be Latinos, African Americans, poor people, single moms, gay and transgender folks, white progressives and lower-wage workers.

Fortunately, it takes two chambers to get things done in Texas and that means Patrick and his court of GOP senators cannot prevail in ruling directly over Texas cities and counties without approval of their co-equal body — House of Representatives run by Speaker Joe Straus. Like the Senate, they are Republican and conservative, but thankfully conducting themselves in a deliberative manner that respects cities and their voters, even in disagreement.

By contrast, Patrick has declared war on blue cities, such as Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. He knows he can’t win the battle at local ballot boxes because voters will elect representatives who share their values and ideals. Given that, Patrick uses the power of the state to preempt and overrule pesky voters in his path. That is what viceroys do.

Consider that Patrick has passed legislation in the Senate that would make it more difficult for city and county governments to set property tax rates at levels they deem necessary to provide police, fire, EMS and other services for residents. Patrick’s Senate Bill 1 would require local jurisdictions to get voter approval for tax rate hikes above 4 percent.

That is a tight squeeze for Austin, which because of rapid growth, has regularly exceeded that limit. Given current trends, the city would need to conduct a tax election every year. The House version sets the level at 6 percent.

State law already provides protections for taxpayers without hamstringing cities and counties or forcing costly elections to do their jobs by permitting voters to petition for a rollback election for increases above 8 percent.

In addition to SB 1, there are proposals to prevent cities from regulating tree removal on private property, to place limits on local government spending and to make it harder for cities to annex outlying areas without their residents’ approval.

But here’s the thing: Legally, Patrick can’t target only blue cities. That means unintentional targets – cities, counties and suburbs run by Republicans — become collateral damage in Patrick’s war.

Their autonomy is every bit at-risk as Austin’s and other blue cities. And Patrick’s attacks won’t stop with the end of the special session on Wednesday. They will continue on conservative radio or television and in public speeches until Patrick prevails — or voters send him packing.

That’s what viceroys do.