Texas state leaders have worked themselves into a crisis of political philosophy.
When it comes to the perceived overreaches of the federal government, they decry top-down control. But when it comes to municipalities, they embrace their own position of centralized power to attack governments that embody democracy in its smallest and most representative form.
State Rep. Phil King’s proposed HB 540 is a good example. It targets citizens’ initiatives, which allow people to gather signatures on a petition and call for a vote.
One would think King, R-Weatherford, should want to protect the sovereignty of the people in this most direct form of democracy. After all, he is fond of saying, “We should always trust people over big government.”
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But HB 540 would require citizens to first get the blessing of the attorney general before voting on a petition. Rather than trusting the people, King thinks we need big government to save us from ourselves.
Why? Oil and gas.
King’s bill only exists because the people of Denton used a citizens’ initiative last November to ban hydraulic fracturing.
The people spoke. Inconveniently for the political ideals of some state leaders, though, they spoke against the industry that owns Austin.
Texas cities have long regulated oil and gas development with local authority that would seem to embody King’s other cherished motto: “Local control and limited government must be the first resort, not the last.”
As newly elected Gov. Greg Abbott said, we should resist “one-size-fits-all, cookie cutter solutions” pushed down from central government.
Yet King’s other proposed bill, HB 539, is a ticket to cookie-cutter solutions. It would require cities to get a fiscal note from the state prior to enacting any measure related to oil and gas development.
The note would estimate costs of the measure to the state, which cities would have to reimburse.
No city would risk incurring the costs ginned up by the oil-soaked calculators in Austin. The only thing left will be the one-size-fits-all rules of state government.
As we are witnessing now, when oil and gas prices fall, the industry can slow or cease operations. This has detrimental economic impacts.
But HB 539 has nothing to say about industry-inflicted costs. When busts happen, well, that’s just tough luck.
But when cities limit industrial activity to protect health and safety, that’s a crime against the state.
Local rules for oil and gas development protect health, safety, welfare and property values. HB 539 doesn’t take these benefits into account.
HB 539 is a black box of arbitrary and vindictive guesswork.
King is using the Denton fracking ban as an excuse to go on a rampage against all local control. It’s the same government overreach so often decried by our conservative leaders.
HB 539 is designed to disenfranchise and neuter municipalities.
Why? Because municipalities are the only remaining level of government accountable to citizens rather than big money.
What we need from Austin is legislation that addresses the conditions that led to the fracking ban in Denton.
We need to reduce industry influence over the Railroad Commission, the state oil and gas regulatory agency.
We need to fix the issue of vested rights and equalize the authority of the surface and mineral property estates.
And we need to reform taxing policies for the industry.
Now, Austin takes all the production taxes and redistributes them across the state. Locales with intensive development, like Denton, are economic sacrifice zones as most of the wealth flows out of town while residents pay the nuisance and pollution costs.
The state should give at least 50 percent of taxes from minerals produced in a locale back to that city.
We need to tell our legislators to live up to their own values. It’s time to kill these bills and get working on ones that might actually solve problems.
Adam Briggle is Vice President of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, which led the Frack Free Denton campaign. Kevin Roden represents District 1 on the Denton City Council.