In Austin, the air smells of tacos and trees — and city-state conflict
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Jul 1 2017
The grand old oak called Patsy Cline rises gracefully on three trunks. Waylon Jennings leans lazily before angling back toward the sun. And Willie Nelson, tall and broad, ascends on a torso three feet thick before bursting into a dense green canopy.
Citizens here named the trees in an effort to save more than a dozen of them — all protected under a city ordinance — that stand in the way of a planned new mixed-use development. It is the kind of quintessentially local battle that plays out in cities across the country, albeit one with a distinctly local flavor in this quirky, musically inclined town.
But here in Texas, the bigger battle over tree ordinances is whether they represent a form of local government overreach. Gov. Greg Abbott (R), citing grave worries about “socialistic” behavior in the state’s liberal cities, has called on Texas lawmakers to gather this month for a special session that will consider a host of bills aimed at curtailing local power on issues ranging from taxation to collecting union dues.
Texas presents perhaps the most dramatic example of the increasingly acrimonious relationship between red-state leaders and their blue city centers, which have moved aggressively to expand environmental regulations and social programs often against the grain of their states.
Republican state leaders across the country have responded to the widening cultural gulf by passing legislation preempting local laws. The best-known example is North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” which was partially reversed this year. It was originally aimed at undercutting Charlotte’s efforts to expand civil rights laws to include LGBT people and to prevent cities from setting their own minimum wage.
But states also have gone after cities in more subtle ways. Ohio’s legislature last year attempted to block a Cleveland regulation that requires certain city contractors to hire local residents. A new Arizona law threatens to cut off funding to cities that take actions state officials deem to be in violation of state law.
“These preemption laws are designed to intimidate and bully local officials into doing the bidding of a smaller group of folks,” said Michael Alfano of the Campaign to Defend Local Solutions, a new nonprofit organization aimed at fending off state efforts to undermine local power.
Matthew Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, an organization of Republican state officials, said preemption laws are coming up more and more because of political losses by Democrats at the state and federal levels.