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"Local Control"- Texas Style

Texas has a long history of political slogans such as "Remember the Alamo". When George Bush was running for governor, his theme of "Let Texans Run Texas" was built on the foundation of "Local Control".

But in the Lone Star State, during the administration of Gov. George Bush, Local Control has turned out to not apply to average citizens or local governments, but only to major business interests with political influence.

This week PEER examines three laws passed by the Texas legislature during the first year of Gov. George W. Bush's administration. Each of these special interest laws stripped Texas communities of powers to manage growth and protect the environment. Part One of this story focuses on how development, agricultural, and other business interests, with the support of Gov. Bush, limited communities' ability to control land use; leading to additional pollution and uncontrolled sprawl. Part Two will discuss the various industries that benefited from the passage of these initiatives and their political contributions to Gov. George W. Bush campaigns.

"Let Texans Run Texas" - Texas Property Rights Legislation

One of the first acts of the new George Bush administration during the 1995 legislative session was to limit state and local government's ability to enforce environmental protections like the Endangered Species Act and other regulations. Called the Private Real Property Rights Preservation Act, SB 14 was part of a national campaign intended to limit environmental protections.

(Note to reader: Your will need to have the Adobe Acrobat reader to view the analysis for this and other bills listed below. If you do not have Acrobat Reader, you can download it for free from Adobe.)

The bill used language in the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment that stated that no government may "take" private property for public use without just compensation.

Arguing that environmental regulations "took" private property, the bill was a radical reinterpretation of constitutional law that created a new cause for legal action against the government by greatly expanding the definition of "taking". The bill allowed governments or their agencies to be sued if an action they took reduced the value of private property by 25% or more.

The bill would force taxpayers to pay corporations or land speculators to obey environmental laws that might cut into their profits. Ken Kramer, Executive Director of the Lone Star Sierra Club said, the bill "will force taxpayers and ratepayers to pay polluters not to pollute". (1)

The proponents of this proposal read like a who's who of Texas Industry groups, including the Texas Farm Bureau, Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association, Take Back Texas, Texas Association of Business, Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy, and many others.

One of the leading proponents of this proposal was Marshall Kuykendall, leader of Take Back Texas, a property rights advocacy group. In a public forum organized to oppose the Endangered Species Act and to build support for private property rights legislation he said "that the last time the federal government took our property without compensation, is when Lincoln freed the slaves." (2)

Dubbed by opponents "a polluters protection act", the bill was pushed through the legislative process. Underscoring the importance of the bill to the new Governors agenda, Gov. Bush traveled to the Texas Farm Bureau Waco Texas Headquarters to sign the legislation into law. (3)

Water Quality Double-Speak

During Governor Bush's first legislative session, numerous attempts were made to undermine local environmental controls. One of the most blatant pieces of special interest legislation was SB 1017 - euphemistically named Water Quality Protection Zones.

The bill, written only to affect the City of Austin, was sponsored by the real-estate affiliate of Freeport-McMoRan Inc., an international mining company. The goal of the legislation was to remove over 8,000 acres from the City of Austin's environmental regulation. The area in question, southwest Austin, had after 20 years of debate come under strong water quality protections through the Save Our Springs citizen initiative.

According to the bill analysis written by the Texas Legislative House Research Organization, the bill would ensure that ". a city could not enforce any land use ordinances, rules, or requirements to protect the environment." And not only did the legislation remove environmental protections, it also removed the area from consideration for annexation for 20 years, a heavy financial blow for a city that had spent millions on infrastructure in the area.

An internal memo from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission warned legislators against this kind of unconstitutional special interest legislation:

"According to the legislative history of this constitutional provision, prohibitions against local laws are intended to combat corruption, personal privileges and meddling in local affairs - or conversely, to prevent a group from dashing to the Capitol to get something their local government would not give them." (4)

But in the atmosphere of the new Bush administration, the warnings were ignored, the bill passed and shortly thereafter roughly 20,000 acres of land left the jurisdiction and environmental regulations of the City of Austin.

"What Texans Can Dream, Texans Can Do"

One of the most ambitious attempts to overturn local control came during the 1995 session with HB 3193, the Southwest Travis County Water District. The district was created from an area of 8,000 acres on the fragile Barton Springs Edwards aquifer that was previously under the jurisdiction of the City of Austin.

The bill was the work of Gary Bradley, a prominent developer who owned the company developing most of the water district. Bradley has the distinction of being one of the largest individual defaulters from the 1980's Savings and Loan Crisis. Bradley, in and out of numerous courtrooms for fraud and other charges, used the legislature to take thousands of acres out of City of Austin control.

The bill gave the new water district unprecedented authority. The district could annex land, have the right to sue, have rulemaking authority, and could issue bonds. And while the new district could annex adjacent land - no part of the district could in turn be annexed without a vote of the residents.

The legislation not only removed thousands of acres from strong local environmental controls, it allowed the Southwest Travis County Water District to supercede the authority of surrounding local governments on all water issues. The district was only subject to minimal oversight on water quality issues from the TNRCC. HB 3193 also allowed the District to break longstanding contracts with the City of Austin concerning annexation and ensuring that the area would conform to current environmental regulations.

Like SB 1017, despite all local attempts to stop the legislation, it passed. And after public outcry, media attention, and broad based local community appeals urging the governor to veto the bill, Gov. George Bush quietly allowed HB 3193, the New Southwest Travis County Water District, to become law.

Local Control Except for the Locals

Ironically, Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for Gov. Bush during 1995, said the Governor was interested in Austin's local water quality issues and endangered species because, " He's trying to keep bureaucrats in Washington from telling Central Texans what to do with their water and their environment." (5)

Local control is a potent political slogan, but in Texas during Gov. Bush's administration, the best chance of exercising local control - is if you don't come from that area.

Next Week - Part Two "Local Control" - Texas Style, Part Two will discuss the various industries that benefited from the passage of these initiatives and their political contributions to Gov. George W. Bush campaigns.

Sources:

  1. 4/29/1995, Austin American Statesman
  2. 10/12/1994, Austin American Statesman
  3. 4/29/1995, Austin American Statesman
  4. TNRCC memo in 4/26/1995, Austin American Statesman
  5. 3/25/1995, Austin American Statesman
The Austin American Statesman's archive is on-line but is fee based.


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