House, Senate bills hurt local autonomy

Usmaan Hasan

Last week Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 100, overturning Austin’s voter-approved regulations on the ride-hailing industry and opening the door for Uber’s and Lyft’s return to the city. In a Legislature dominated by conservatives, the session has been marked by uncharacteristically aggressive attempts to curtail local control — undermining the will of voters and overstepping the bounds of limited government that Republicans purport to respect.

HB100 does not stand alone in eroding local autonomy. Senate Bill 6 — the discriminatory bill that refuses to die — overrides local authority to establish protections for transgender constituents. SB451 forbids restrictions on short-term rental properties enacted by Austin, San Antonio and Fort Worth. Even trash bag legislation isn’t safe. SB 103 aimed to overturn local plastic bag bans, such as those present in Austin. These proposed bills were a fraction of the dozens of bills aimed to chip away the authority of local government.

This assault on local autonomy comes at a time in which voter turnout in the United States is at a 20-year low, driven in part by the feeling that voting is an exercise in futility. Decentralization and local control exists for a reason — a decentralized system serves to legitimize the government, create more effective policy and, in large populations, make government accessible. Overruling local governments is a power that must be used sparingly, otherwise the last bulwark for an informed and involved constituency will fall.

These arguments should sound familiar to conservatives. As attorney general, Gov. Abbott railed against perceived overreach by the Obama administration. But now, principled opposition to big government has given way to a cynical agenda aimed at shoring up the conservative base.

The irony manifested itself in a bill forbidding municipalities from creating occupational licensing requirements stricter than the state. The author, Matt Schaefer, is the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. Apparently freedom only counts if it’s handed down by the state government. A heavy-handed approach to policy making is both unwarranted and dangerous. It allows legislators like Sen. Kelly Hancock, author of SB 451, who was elected to represent parts of Dallas and Tarrant counties, to override the wills of voters in Austin and San Antonio. It’s undemocratic.

The Legislature’s decision to reinstate Uber and Lyft to Austin is symptomatic of a deeper problem. What’s at risk is greater than ride-hailing, policy, or politics: It’s the very heart of the American experiment. To preserve the legitimacy of Texas democracy, the 86th Legislature must tack carefully to avoid a collision course with an apathetic electorate.

Hasan is a Finance and IRG sophomore from Plano.