By KAREN BROOKS HARPER Published: 20 April 2013 10:45 PM
AUSTIN — State Rep. Jonathan Stickland lives 280 miles away from San Antonio, but he’s making it a priority of his first term in office to erase a knife ban enacted by the City Council.
Such ordinances aren’t likely in his decidedly Republican Hurst-Euless-Bedford district. But Stickland says that San Antonio has trampled its residents’ Second Amendment rights and that it’s his job to protect Texans from patchwork weapons laws imposed by overreaching city councils.
“The San Antonio lock-blade ordinance is just one example of overbearing municipal regulations that risk turning regular citizens — even ones who have consulted state laws to ensure they are in compliance — into criminals,” Stickland said.
He is among a handful of lawmakers, mostly Republicans, pushing to limit local control — a conservative tenet —with bills that reach into other lawmakers’ districts but have no immediate effect on their own constituents.
The bills include bans on some local ordinances and restrictions on school district policies. Lawmakers see tension between local control and personal rights, and there’s an ongoing debate among conservatives about how much the state needs to protect Texans from local officials.
“What you’re observing is the debate within the Republican Party and the conservative movement, for which there is no consensus,” said Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas. “In most conservative minds, you can use government to trump local control to protect a different [constitutional] right. But the rub comes in with, when does that occur and when is that balance justified?”
Two bills by Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, have drawn some fire from Central Texas lawmakers because they affect Austin and Pflugerville — about 260 miles from his district north of Dallas.
One bill would prohibit bans on plastic bags, a direct hit on an ordinance that went into effect in Austin in March. Officials in other cities, including Dallas, are considering similar bans.
The second would cut some funds from school districts that offer benefits to people who are not employees and not dependents of employees — a run at the same-sex domestic-partnership benefits offered by the Austin and Pflugerville school districts.
“To think Pflugerville has sued the state for more funding, while at the same time bankrolling a lifestyle most Texans do not agree with, is quite disturbing to me,” Springer said when he announced his measure in February.
Springer said his constituents don’t want to spend money that belongs in the classroom to cover people who aren’t family members, whether in same-sex relationships or not. He also said that although no schools in his district have plans to offer the benefits, they might in the future.
Sometimes, he said, the state needs to rein in the local governments when “there is no end to what they would throw under local control.”
During a hearing last week on the measure, Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, noted the apparent contradiction.
“Local control seems to be a lot like love,” he said. “Everybody’s got their own idea of it.”
Democratic Rep. Dawnna Dukes, whose district includes Pflugerville and Austin, does not support the legislation and said Springer is overstepping.
“Sponsoring such measures is contradictory to the universal principle of his party of local control,” she said.
Filing legislation that affects only another lawmaker’s district — or fighting such measures — is considered a breach of decorum among lawmakers.
But that doesn’t always stop them.
In 2011, Republican Rep. Larry Gonzales pushed for a bill to allow Round Rock voters to decide whether to expand the use of a local tax to build a new facility.
Gonzales was miffed at opposition by some Republicans, who mistook the proposal for a tax hike. He said the bill was “none of their business.”
“I don’t need somebody from the Panhandle or West Texas telling me that my legislation isn’t worthy to pass,” he said.
Cities often need to pick up where state government falls short in regulating things such as payday lenders and plastic bags, said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League.
“If the state doesn’t want to regulate harmful plastics, that’s fine,” Sandlin said. “But don’t complain when some citizens in a few cities decide it’s a priority.”
Stickland said his legislation is about protecting personal freedoms and Second Amendment rights in places such as San Antonio and Corpus Christi, which also has a knife ordinance. The bill would bar cities from regulating knives, stun guns and personal defense sprays, as well as prohibit them from passing some gun regulations.
Stickland said he hopes to solve confusing patchwork weapons legislation and protect constitutional rights.
“When it comes to constitutional issues and personal rights and liberties, I don’t think local control should be able to trump that,” he said.
Elected officials, no matter their party, often find themselves with conflicts among their loyalties to the district, their personal beliefs and their duty to serve the whole state.
“Who do your represent? You try to represent both. And sometimes you may even go against your own district,” said Allan Saxe, political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Voters put you in office, but you see something, while it might be good for your district, it’s bad for your state. We call those people courageous.”
A bipartisan bill that passed the Senate recently would outlaw voter-approved capital appreciation bonds used by fast-growth school districts without much commercial property tax revenue.
“Our voters elected our board to make decisions in the interest of our students. And so now you’re going to dictate how we manage that?” said Veronica Garcia Sopher, executive director for school and community relations in the Leander ISD, a fast-growth school district that adds 1,000 students each year.
Gonzales said that while bills that protect constitutional rights or personal liberties at the expense of local control leave “room for discussion,” lawmakers should tread lightly.
“Each elected body is accountable to its electorate,” he said. “That’s the bottom line for me.”
Bills targeting local government actions would:
AT A GLANCE: SAMPLING OF BILLS
Ban cities from building day labor centers to help people who entered the country illegally find work. (HB 181)
Prohibit cities from adopting or enforcing weapons ordinances. (HB 1299)
Require the attorney general to sue a city or county that regulates firearms or sport shooting ranges contrary to state law. (HB 2860 and SB 987)
Prohibit a city from enacting bans on plastic bags or packages or containers and negate current bans. (HB 2416)