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There's Nothing Sacred About Local Control

Gov. Greg Abbott ruffled feathers a few weeks ago when he implied that he had a strong view of the power of state law to supersede municipal regulations that restrict the rights and freedoms of Texans. 

Speaking to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Abbott warned that, despite the dramatic differences between Texas and California policies at the state level, some Texas cities seemed to be embracing California’s highly regulatory approach on issues such as tree ordinances, bans on plastic grocery bags, fracking and the like. He warned that such a “patchwork quilt of bans and rules” threatens to erode the “Texas model.” 

Some were clearly put off by Abbott’s comments, including some of his conservative supporters. There were even suggestions that Abbott would be an “imperial governor,” simply because he seemed to not assert the sanctity of “local control.” 

But Abbott is correct. His observation is astute and also has the benefit of clarifying an area of confusion among many regarding the supposed sanctity of local control. 

It’s absolutely true that the closer political power is to the people, the more responsive political power tends to be. But that can be a two-edged sword. Local governments are at least as capable as the feds of passing laws and ordinances that violate the presumption of liberty in the Constitution. If I may be permitted a bit of hyperbole, tyranny isn’t OK just because it is approved by a majority of your fellow townsfolk. Rule of law, not local control, must be the governing principle. 

I was reminded of this confusion a few months back while addressing the then-proposed Denton fracking ban. While I was being interviewed by conservative talk radio host Mark Davis, Mark expressed a common sentiment, saying: “I agree with you that banning fracking is a bad idea, but I also believe in local control. Shouldn’t local towns be able to do what they want? Don’t we believe in local control?” 

No, actually, we don’t. The governing principle is rule of law, not local control. And in our system, rule of law is most often on the side of the state. 

Remember, the states were here first. The states created the federal government, and in the federal system created by the states and enshrined in the Constitution, the states sit atop the chain of political command. The Constitution, written and approved by the states, delegates only limited powers to the federal government and reserves the rest to the states and “to the people.” 

Since the states created the federal government and create their own local municipalities, the states determine which powers are allocated to each. So a state has the power to limit the power of municipalities, and to pass new laws that limit municipalities further, if necessary. There is no sacred principle of “local control” that supersedes this structure of legal authority. 

Don’t make a fetish of local control. This will become increasingly important as our Legislature attempts to restore some sanity to our tax system, especially to the property tax system. Wrongheaded belief in the superiority of local control has been used by municipal lobbyists in Austin to amass an excessive amount of influence over state policymaking. 

And finally, if conservatives still think local control is some kind of sacred principle, I ask you: Should a city in Texas be able by vote to exempt itself from the state’s limitations on the provision of abortion?

I didn’t think so.