A history of local government overreach led to outright abuse of power in 2020; it is up to the Texas Legislature, and citizens, to address it in the 87th session next year and restore citizen control at the local level.

Here are examples of local government overreach in response to the Chinese coronavirus:

In-person worship was banned. City officials moved to fine businesses if people didn’t wear masks, and they even set up snitch lines for people to report each other. A North Texas county judge asked Gov. Greg Abbott for permission to fine individuals not wearing masks, and the county commissioners ignored the many citizens who told them to not extend the mask mandate.

Then came the far-left movement to defund the police. Austin City Council members voted to raid $150 million in taxpayer money from the police budget, while most Dallas City Council members voted to cut $7 million from police overtime.

And let’s not forget the “stay home” orders that shut down people’s livelihoods.

Republican Party of Texas Chairman Allen West recently said it’s time for the state Legislature to end mandates and executive overreach.

Charles Blain, president of Urban Reform, said local officials’ behavior this year shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

“The reason the property tax fight came up in the Legislature is because local governments abuse their power and raise property taxes too much,” he said in an interview with Texas Scorecard. “The reason eminent domain [reform] passed in the Legislature is because local governments weren’t listening to the will of the people and were commandeering land.”

But this year wasn’t just the routine hit to citizens’ wallets by hiking property taxes, but the atomic bombing of their bank accounts from economic shutdowns that closed businesses.

“They’ve lost out on wages if they are largely tip-based workers in the hospitality industry,” Blain explained. “They’ve lost out on a lot because these local governments have shut things down and demanded that people not go out.”

On top of shutdown orders, taxpayer-funded advertising contributed to the problem, too.

“We did start to open back up, but the fear that was then instilled by these local governments to make people fearful to even go out at that point still damaged a lot of people’s lives,” Blain said.

Property taxes were hiked, too, despite reform passed in the 2019 legislative session requiring voter approval to raise operating tax revenue by more than 3.5 percent in cities and counties with denser populations.

How did things go south so quickly?

“Because of these emergency orders and because of a loophole in the previous property tax legislation in [Senate Bill 2], it allowed for these local governments to increase taxes without voter approval,” Blain said. “And we saw a lot of local governments across the state take full advantage of that.”

This was something the Texas Legislature could have prevented.

“I don’t understand why you would build a loophole that allows you to increase property taxes during a time of disaster when people need their property taxes lowest the most,” Blain said. “If [local governments] wanted to increase taxes under a disaster declaration because of a plant explosion and they needed to immediately clean up the area so that people could live there and things like that, that’s a little more justifiable.”

But Blain says situations like the Chinese coronavirus aren’t a justification for these tax hikes, and local governments should be looking at cutting spending, not hiking taxes.

“What we’re seeing is that they’re trying to take advantage of this during things like hurricanes and global pandemics when people are all struggling, when everyone is out of work, or facing reduced wages, or backed up on bills. And that’s when they’re trying to increase these taxes,” he analyzed.

“You cannot look at a situation like this and think, ‘We need to take more money from taxpayers,’ rather than, ‘We need to cut spending,’” Blain continued. “The people who aren’t taking a cut out of their paychecks—the people who aren’t reducing their hourly wages—are the folks who are making these decisions.”

This all leads up to the Texas legislative session in 2021.

Texas Scorecard asked Blain if revisions of local governments’ emergency powers in state law are needed after everything witnessed up to this point.

“I think there are some revisions that are necessary,” he replied. “For instance, I think there should be automatic reviews after 30 days of issuing emergency orders, where after 30 days, commissioners courts or city councils … need to get together to either extend it or [end it].”

Blain adds he does see the authority of these emergency powers is “important in certain instances.”

“When we had Hurricane Harvey, there just wasn’t time for the mayor to then coordinate with the county judge … but then coordinate with the governor,” he said. “If the city of Houston needed to push through a contract or an agreement with Louisiana to be able to get resources, they should have the authority to do that because it’s an immediate need, and it’s something that’s really present.”

“But it also shouldn’t mean that he can then turn around and raise taxes to pay for that need.”

There’s also a need for more accountability.

“There needs to be some sort of level of increased awareness about the powers that are embedded in [emergency powers], but the accountability that’s levied in it too,” Blain said. “I think that it needs to be spread among the bodies that represent the people, rather than just one elected head.”

When it comes to involving the Legislature, a narrative of local governments is “local control,” that being locally elected officials are the best ones to make decisions in their areas. The counter-argument is what local officials really mean when they say “local control” is “control of the locals.”

“It’s great to have local control where citizens can have a say in what’s going on and make these decisions at city halls and county governments,” Blain said. “But the problem is that far too often, local control means these local governments overstep their bounds or abuse their authority and take full advantage of their citizens, and as creations of the state, they should be reined in when they do that. That is completely appropriate.”

It’s the state’s responsibility to step in and to protect the citizens.

Blain adds that he advocates for making reforms at the local level as well, such as the movement he’s helping lead to amend the City of Houston’s charter, largely because local governments meet more frequently than the Legislature.

“But far too often, these local governments take advantage of the citizen and overstep their bounds,” he said. “I like to see when the state steps in. That’s not to say the state doesn’t overstep their bounds as well from time to time, but somebody’s got to rein in these local governments because they certainly don’t always listen to the citizens.”

As the next legislative session approaches, what can citizens do to curb “control of the locals”?

“I think citizens need to be paying attention to all these local things that have happened during the local abuses,” he advised. “Make a list of those, and make sure that they advocate for [reform].”

“They need to pay attention to pre-filing and let their legislators know what’s going on because a lot of these issues have been on a very micro-level, and legislators don’t necessarily see them,” he continued. “But I think the legislators need to take note, too, and realize how many businesses have been damaged, how many lives and livelihoods have been damaged.”

The 87th Legislative Session starts on January 12, 2021. Citizens concerned about local government overreach may contact their elected state representative and state senator.

Citizens may keep track of bills being filed by visiting Texas Legislature Online.

Robert Montoya

Born in Houston, Robert Montoya is an investigative reporter for Texas Scorecard. He believes transparency is the obligation of government.