‘Proper’ local control in the eye of the beholder

March 25, 2017 GMT

“Local control” is as popular as cold beer in modern Texas politics.

For a time, conservatives monopolized the phrase. They used it when fighting against federal rules and mandates orchestrated by President Barack Obama.

When he was attorney general, Gov. Greg Abbott defended Texas’ local control by filing a mountain of lawsuits against the Obama administration. Yet last week, Abbott called for a broad-based law that would pre-empt local regulations, the Texas Tribune reported.

That turnaround is as humorous as it is hypocritical.

When criticizing a national education initiative known as Common Core, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told Breitbart Texas, “I want the federal government out of our schools. Local control is what parents want.”

But in opposition to so-called sanctuary cities, Abbott and Patrick want local police officers and deputies in Texas cities and counties to enforce federal immigration law.

Many liberals are adamantly opposed to any requirements regarding how local law enforcement handle immigrants, but they welcomed Obama’s environmental regulations and other federal initiatives resisted by the conservative Republicans controlling state government.

With conservatives in charge of the state’s levers of power and liberals holding clout in urban areas, the local control fight has moved from the state resisting federal government “overreach” to the state “encroaching” on local control at the municipal level.

This year, one of the big themes in the Legislature involves conservative efforts on a variety of fronts to limit or eliminate municipal regulations such as nondiscrimination ordinances that protect LGBT rights and bans on plastic bags.

The list of policy struggles that involve a tug of war over local control is long. It includes so-called sanctuary cities, state-imposed revenue caps, ride-hailing regulations, public education regulations, tree ordinances and texting while driving rules.

A notable example of the state’s conservative powers behaving as the federal government often does is the 2015 law prohibiting cities from banning fracking in their city limits. That law, signed by Abbott, was a response to a 2014 fracking ban passed by Denton.

Regardless of where an individual falls on the conservative-liberal scale, in some situations his or her policy positions are likely to be served by citing a preference for local control.

If you oppose ordinances that limit the number of trees that developers or other landowners can cut down, the existing “patchwork quilt” of ordinances is undesirable and improperly limits private property rights. If protecting your city’s tree canopy is a priority to you, local tree ordinances are welcome.

If you oppose smoking in restaurants and bars, a smoking ban in your city is a healthy dose of local control. If you want to smoke in restaurants and bars and your city prohibits the practice, local control equals “local tyranny” — as the Texas Public Policy Project describes local ordinances that it finds offensive.

The dynamic is reminiscent of the debate over judicial activism. Most agree that judges are supposed to interpret laws and not write them. But practically speaking, if one agrees with a judicial decision, he or she is likely to see it as legitimate. If one disagrees, the decision often is perceived as judicial activism.

The Texas Politics Project of the University of Texas conducted a poll on local control in 2015. Researchers found Texans’ feelings about local control were secondary to the other policies in play.

“In essence, local control was really about people supporting their policy preferences, not some abstract view of the proper location of governmental power,” Joshua Blank, manager of polling and research at the project, wrote in an analysis of the poll his group did on the topic.

Most of us are hypocritical when it comes to local control. We cite it only when it is convenient. What is more important is whether you prefer prioritizing the environment or protecting property rights, and so on.

Since I support the municipal interests in most of the 2017 battles, local control is sacred and must be protected — this year.