Politics & Government

Texas lawmakers could target local control in 2017 if cities ‘impede liberties’

State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, and state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Arlington, answered questions at the Fort Worth Chamber’s Leaders in Government luncheon at Cendera Center Tuesday.
State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, and state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Arlington, answered questions at the Fort Worth Chamber’s Leaders in Government luncheon at Cendera Center Tuesday. rmallison@star-telegram.com

Some Texas lawmakers are tired of city leaders taking the law into their own hands to create rules governing everything from the use of plastic bags to Uber.

The problem, many say, is that those rules create a patchwork of laws across the state — different cities have different rules governing the same things.

“Obviously we are going to work together toward good solutions,” state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, told a crowd of around 200 gathered Tuesday for the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce’s Leaders in Government Series at the Cendera Center. “But some cities are doing things where the state [needs to] step in.

“We represent people, not necessarily institutions or cities,” she said. “A city doesn’t have unilateral rights to do what it wants. … If a city is doing what Austin did with Uber, … you are going to see legislators step up.”

Austin city leaders created new regulations to require ride-hailing service drivers to go through fingerprints and criminal background checks, ultimately prompting Uber and Lyft to leave the city.

Already, a proposal — Senate Bill 176 — has been filed in the Texas Legislature to put such transportation network companies under state oversight. If lawmakers approve this proposal, it would supersede any local ordinances.

The issue of local control came up during the luncheon Tuesday when Fort Worth City Councilman Jungus Jordan noted that the vast majority of Texans live in urban areas. He asked Burton and state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, what the role of the Legislature would be next year in dealing with cities.

“We sort of have a chip on our shoulders,” Jordan, a former president of the Texas Municipal League, said after the biannual legislative preview. “We believe we are the government closest to our citizens … and we want to retain the ability to represent the people closest to us.”

Burton said state lawmakers will step up to weigh in if “cities do more things that will impede liberties.”

Turner said cities and counties and the state need to work together to find solutions.

“Unless a city is trying to do something I disagree with, … I’m going to support what they want to do,” Turner said. “Strong cities make up a strong state.”

The Legislature goes back to work Jan. 10. The session ends May 29.

Other issues

Burton and Turner — the only local lawmakers who attended the luncheon — addressed a variety of questions that ranged from mental health to education funding needs.

Some of the issues they addressed:

Legislative priorities: Burton said her top goal is to “make sure that state government definitely funds the core functions of state government.” Turner said improving Child Protective Services and adequately funding public education and mental health are at the top of his priority list.

School choice: Burton said this issue, which has drawn support in the Senate before, likely will draw support in the upper chamber next year as well. But Turner said vouchers have been rejected in the House before and he doesn’t “think the support is there for it” in 2017 either.

Mental health: Turner said lawmakers need to address this issue and improve services, particularly because 1 in 4 Texans has some sort of mental health issue such as depression. “Everybody knows someone who has been impacted,” he said, adding that early intervention is crucial. Burton said there is a big need to address mental health issues among Texans locked up in jail.

Enterprise funds: Burton said she’s a “free market conservative” and not a fan of economic incentive programs because “people should have the freedom to give their dollars” to the businesses of their choice. “I don’t believe it’s the governor’s role to pick winners or losers.”

Turner acknowledged that he has had his share of concerns about this type of fund through the years, particularly after state audits showed that many who received financial rewards from the Texas Enterprise Fund often weren’t monitored to make sure they create the types or number of jobs proposed. “For a long time, the enterprise fund was mismanaged, under the previous governor,” he said. But after reforms were put in place, he said, such funds became “a tool that brings new jobs … to Texas.”

Anna M. Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley