House Bill (HB) 714 and a corresponding constitutional amendment, filed by state Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco), would nominally eliminate the City of Austin government and establish the District of Austin in its place.
“Elected officials in Austin have failed their city,” Patterson said on Twitter about his bill. “Record high taxes and crime are pushing folks out of the city, and their San Francisco wannabe policies force the state to come over the top on legislation each session.”
He added that the idea is “to give the elected representatives of the State of Texas an opportunity to better manage a Capitol District, reduce taxes, enforce our laws, and defend Texas values.”
If passed, the law would abolish Austin as a standalone city and make it a capital district sort of like Washington, D.C. as of January 1, 2024.
When that date comes, the city as currently constituted — in its boundaries, financial debts, and laws in the charter and book of ordinances — would be carried over as the baseline of government for the District of Austin. It would also keep Austin’s home-rule status, which allows municipal governments to pass laws within their jurisdictions themselves rather than adhering solely to state code for regulating daily affairs.
Home-rule status was established in the early 1900s by the Legislature to clear its plate of day-to-day dealings with the state’s growing number of population centers.
The one big difference set forth by HB 714 is that, “The governing body of the district shall submit to the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the house of representatives notice of each action taken by the governing body that adopts or amends the district’s charter or an ordinance of the district.”
This provision gives the state some degree of oversight, and for Patterson, the Legislature could hypothetically veto any actions made by the district’s government — as Congress can do with the District of Columbia’s municipal government.
The idea is not new. Texas Republicans unhappy with Austin’s policies have made the suggestion for years. State Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) filed the exact same bill during last year’s session, only with 2022 as the effective year instead of 2024.
That bill was referred to the House State Affairs Committee and went no further.
But developments over the last few years have renewed the idea’s attraction. The city’s year-long experiment in lax public camping was broadly seen as a disaster, so much so that Austin’s left-of-center voter base restored the rescinded ban by a large margin.
In response, the Legislature passed a statewide public camping ban.
In response, the Legislature passed a law prescribing property tax freezes and other punishments for localities deemed to have “defunded” their police department.
Gov. Greg Abbott also suggested a state takeover of the Austin Police Department, and even proposed annexing a state patrol zone; the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) would take over patrol duties within the area that encompassed downtown Austin up to the University of Texas campus.
It did not ultimately come to fruition — legislation to establish the zone was heard in the Legislature but did not advance — although DPS increased its presence around the university campus.
Another bill aimed at Austin, while it didn’t pass, would have restricted local government’s ability to place regulations on employment conditions between employers and their employees.
This year, a bill has already been filed by former Austin city councilwoman and state representative-elect Ellen Troxclair to outlaw universal basic income programs — something Austin approved earlier this year and other cities have experimented with too.
In an interview on Austin’s KLBJ radio station, Patterson said that since the Legislature must keep passing new laws in response to Austin’s policies, the state might as well run it.
It’s safe to say that the Venn diagram of Austin’s official actions and things Patterson and many state Republicans denounce is nearly a circle.
Those opposed to state interference in municipalities’ affairs, in addition to generally falling along political lines, often cite “local control” as a defense.
Local control underpins virtually every political and policy issue in the state. When the Legislature reconvenes next year, it is a safe bet that “local control” will be invoked on the House floor more times than can be counted.
Dallas City Councilman Adam Bazaldua criticized Patterson’s bill, saying, “This brazen attack on [local control] is not only an attempt to take away the will of the voters in Austin, but is a prime example of the waste of time and resources that occurs every session.”
“[Local control] doesn’t mean you do whatever you want after 7 [percent] of the voting population shows up for an election,” Patterson responded.
The relationship between many state legislators and the city in which they gather is tenuous at best. Republicans hold large majorities in the two legislative chambers along with every statewide seat; Travis County, which encompasses almost the entirety of Austin, voted 72.6 percent for Democrat Beto O’Rourke last week.
That leaves a Grand Canyon-sized divide between the beliefs and priorities of the officials who run the city and those who run the state.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.