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Politics

What Can Texas Cities Do When State Legislators Admit to Hating Them?

| 12 hours ago

Buried near the 40-minute mark of the surreptitious recording of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and the far-right Empower Texans head Michael Q. Sullivan was a brief exchange that spelled out the antipathy many in the state Legislature feel toward Texas’ cities:

Dennis Bonnen: In this office, in the conference room at that end, any mayor or county judge who’s dumbass enough to come meet with me, I told them with great clarity, my goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.

Dustin Burrows: I hope the next session is even worse.

Dennis Bonnen: And I’m all for that.

The quote made it around certain Twitter circles yesterday morning. The plain language explained what plenty of bills have done in recent legislative sessions: kneecap urban areas from passing policy the Lege doesn’t want. Last year came reform bills that capped the rate at which cities can raise property taxes. The Lege banned red light cameras. It blocked cities from charging private telecommunication companies for using public right of way, particularly concerning when you think of all the impending 5G infrastructure.

Houston estimates that not charging telecom companies for right of way will cost it $27 million per year. Taken altogether, the bills passed by the Lege will create a $44 million annual shortfall for the city of Dallas by 2023, according to a budget forecast. Even Moody’s found the property tax reform law would generate “minimal” homeowner savings but would “hurt local governments substantially.” That sounds like a plan to screw local governments more than provide relief to taxpayers.

Burrows, the Lubbock state representative who was also heard spouting off on the tape, later added, “We hate cities and counties.” He told Sullivan he had pitched the governor on taking away what cities can use from sales tax to pay for economic development, public transit, or other services.

These strategies aren’t new.

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Good Public Transit

DART Is (Finally) Ready to Redo Its Bus System

| 3 weeks ago

Dallas Area Rapid Transit proved it is finally serious about fixing its bus system. On Wednesday, the DART board voted to sign a contract with public transit consultant Jarrett Walker, who will help the public transit agency draw up a new plan for bus service in the region.

Walker is a big name in the world of transit planning—and bus system planning in particular. He and his firm have worked with cities all over the world, and he has proven successful helping low density cities rethink how to organize their public transit systems and improve bus reliability and ridership. Perhaps most notably, in Seattle, Walker helped what CityLab deemed a “transit-backward town” become a national model in implementing smart, efficient bus service. Walker was also deeply involved in Houston’s bus redo. He writes about his ideas about public transit at HumanTransit.org.

That DART is bringing Walker on board is significant not simply because he is a smart transit wonk. Walker is known for being able to lead civic leaders and transit officials through the complicated political calculations that can inhibit transit reform. Earlier this week, I wrote about Steven Higashide’s new book Better Buses, Better Transit, in which the author argues successful conversations around transit need “to include process and politics, not just technology and policy.” That phrase pretty much sums up Walker’s approach.

“If the buses are terrible in your city, you may think that buses are terrible in general,” Walker wrote in a 2018 Atlantic piece. “In truth, a city’s bus service is as good as its leaders and voters want it to be. Where voters have funded better bus services and cities have worked to give them priority, as in Seattle, ridership has soared.”

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Good Public Transit

Why Do American Cities Hate the Bus?

| 3 weeks ago

A couple of weeks ago, I was driving around Costa Rica, a country known for its challenged infrastructure, when I noticed one simple, if exceptional feature of the Central American country’s roads. Driving in Costa Rica meant battling plenty of dirt, rocky, and unpaved roads; massive potholes; roads that disappeared into swampy bogs; single lane bridges over rivers that occasionally had giant holes in them; towns only accessible via mazes of dirt paths that sometimes led into ditches or creeks; and other obstacles. But on every kind of road, every mile or so, there was a modest shelter demarcating a bus stop.

The bus shelters were often simple affairs—a few posts holding up a corrugated metal roof, a wooden bench or two. But because the bus shelters were there, within a few hours I knew that the region had an extensive bus network. If I missed one of those Swiss cheese bridges and drove my rental into a croc-infested river, I could always jump on a bus and head back to town. The bus shelters did what DART’s tiny yellow bus stop signs fail to do: provide an easy and immediate way to navigate the region’s public transit network. Nearly every time I saw one, I couldn’t help but throw up my hands and shout in exasperation, “Why can’t Dallas build simple, stupid bus shelters?”

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Local Government

This Is How Engineers Ruin Cities

| 1 month ago

On Friday, Tim wrote about the latest shenanigans coming from the North Central Texas Council of Governments and its transportation director Michael Morris, and the absurd plan to funnel millions of federal transportation dollars to prop up an idiotic, and wildly conflicted, idea of building soccer fields under I-345. The incident offers yet another example of how a governmental organization with little actual public oversight is able to advance large-scale public projects without much of a public process. “This isn’t really all transportation related,” Morris admits, almost flaunting the way he can deploy millions in public funds at his own personal discretion. So much for democracy.

This shouldn’t be surprising—this kind of thing happens all the time. How does it happen? Across the country, civil engineers have built up a solid strategy of thwarting public will by relying on a few rhetorical and procedural tricks of the trade. Over on Strong Towns, Charles Marohn breaks down the playbook. As a jumping off point, Marohn’s article uses a letter that traffic engineers in Springfield, Massachusetts, sent in response to three city council members’ request for a new signaled crosswalk near the New England town’s library. In the letter, Marohn, an engineer himself, finds all four of the typical obfuscations that thwart the public process. If you follow city politics, each of these four general strategies will sound all too familiar. Here are some highlights.

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Local Government

Mayor Eric Johnson Has Another New Gig

| 2 months ago

It’s not just former mayoral candidates that are taking new jobs. Weeks after being sworn in as Dallas mayor, Eric Johnson has accepted a partner position with Locke Lord, a public finance law firm with a deep history of working with the city of Dallas. Johnson will be joining the firm’s Public Finance Practice Group, according to the firm’s release. Johnson previously worked in the public finance divisions of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP and Andrews Kurth Kenyon LLP. Here’s what Johnson has to say about his new gig:

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Politics

Which Dems Are Dallas Donors Supporting?

| 3 months ago

Here’s a Friday afternoon time suck: the New York Times has a detailed map of the donors who are contributing to the 2020 Democratic campaigns. Basically, you can click on the map, run your cursor over the zip codes, and find out which candidate has the most individual donors in that area. You can read the New York Times piece for an analysis for how the national fundraising scene is shaking out (spoiler: Bernie’s killing it and Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg are fighting for silver and bronze). What I wanted to know is who Dallas voters are spending their money on.

The big takeaway from Texas is that Beto still dominates throughout the state, and Julian Castro is having trouble funding donors outside of his San Antonio base. Beto’s appeal, however, appears very limited to Texas, which made me want to dig into the map and see which candidate local voters might support if Beto doesn’t make it to the final rounds.

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Policy

Texas State Government Not Alone In Stripping Cities of Political Power

| 3 months ago

This past Texas legislative session was a tough one for Texas cities. A series of bills passed by the lege made it a lot more difficult for municipalities in Texas to generate revenue. The state banned red light cameras and fees charged to telecommunications companies for using the public right of way. But the biggest hit to city budgets was a bill that limits cities’ ability to grow property tax revenue without holding a “roll back” election. Dallas can expect to have $7 million less in its budget this season, but it’s the cumulative effect of the bills that will have the largest impact. As Matt reported back in July, a Moody’s analysis of the bill found that “the cap would generate ‘minimal’ homeowner savings but would ‘hurt local governments substantially.’”

Texas is not alone when it comes to state governments meddling in their cities’ business. The recent attempts in the state legislature to limit municipal power—which went far-beyond the bills that passed and included a large number of failed bills that would have installed all sorts of preempted legislation—are part of a growing national trend. A new report by the Local Solutions Support Center and the State Innovations Exchange has found that since 2011 state governments have stepped up their efforts to pass broader and more punitive preemption laws that limit cities, towns, and counties own legislative autonomy. The effort, the report argues, is being driven by special interests, and the new bills filed in state legislatures throughout the county tend to gravitate toward laws that limit local governments’ ability to regulate businesses and protect civil rights.

The full report is available here, but let’s drill into what it found in Texas.

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Politics

How Philip Kingston Helped Eric Johnson Become Mayor

| 3 months ago

It was early 2017, and the progressive slate of Dallas City Council candidates was gathered at Philip Kingston’s Lower Greenville house for a campaign kickoff confab. Novice candidates Omar Narvaez, Dominique Torres, and Candy Evans talked policy and strategy with incumbents Mark Clayton and Adam Medrano (on speakerphone). Evans asked many questions: “What’s a clawback?” “So, what is the deal with the homeless thing?”

No surprise, but incumbent Scott Griggs offered the most detailed answers. He tried to keep his explanations simple: the city of Dallas pension crisis can be blamed on Richard Tettamant; the solution to the coming public safety crisis is more cops on the street. Inevitably, though, he would hop down a lawyerly rabbit hole and find himself explaining the Flynn compromise, the annuitization of DROP, unfunded accrued liabilities, how COLA is tied to CPI, and so forth.

If one wanted to fix the problems at hand, Griggs had the right tools, but his lengthy explanations didn’t translate easily to a campaign placard. A deep-dive discussion of DART’s budgetary woes, for example, didn’t exactly electrify the newcomers in the room, who just wanted a compelling narrative they could sell to voters.

Fortunately for the candidates, Kingston has always been a live wire. “I don’t say this lightly,” he began. “Mike Rawlings is a corrupt person. He has used the office for personal gain, and there is no f’ing doubt about it. Now, the good news about Mike Rawlings is, he’s the least competent mayor we’ve had. Otherwise, we’d be in real fucking trouble.”

That’s a verbatim quote from a recording of the meeting. The room’s pulse quickened.

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Politics

Early Campaign Donations Show A Major Fight For Texas Legislative Seats in 2020

| 3 months ago

The kumbayah of the 86th legislative session’s comity and bipartisanship led to the passage of historic and costly school finance legislation. It was one without fist fights or bill-killing massacres. But the gloves are off: 2020 is upon us.

For the first since 2009, when Republicans only held a two seat majority, both parties are on defense.

Texas House seats in Dallas County—and even neighboring Collin, Denton and Tarrant counties—are in play. Both parties need to defend what they have, including the six Democratic Dallas pickups and the two remaining Republicans in the local delegation. With the first major campaign finance reports of the season now available, a glimpse of what is to come predicts a wild ride.

Here’s where we stand:

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Controversy

Dallas’ Confederate War Memorial Isn’t Going Anywhere (For Now)

| 4 months ago

Last February, the Dallas City Council voted to pull down the Confederate War Memorial, a massive obelisk in Pioneer Park Cemetery that is surrounded by statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his rebel generals. The monument has been shrouded in a black tarp ever since, as the city negotiates with a contractor who will remove the monument. But for now, the memorial will remain thanks to an emergency stay filed in the Texas Fifth District Court of Appeals.

The legal challenge to the city’s efforts to rid Dallas’ landscape of its prominent totems to the Confederacy has been rumbling in the background of the public debate over the meaning, significance, and fate of the monuments. Warren Johnson, who recently lost a bid for the District 14 council seat, launched an effort to keep Dallas from removing its Confederate monuments after the statue of General Robert E. Lee in Lee Park was removed in September 2017. Johnson’s group–Return Lee Park–argues that the city violated the Texas Open Meetings Act and the Texas Antiquities Act in its removal of the statue.

Other legal efforts to block the removal of the monuments have been dismissed, but Johnson’s case is winding its way through the appeals process. Arlington attorney Warren Norred filed an emergency stay on demolishing the memorial while the appeal process plays out, and on Monday Justice Bill Whitehill issued an order that granted the motion.

So where does that leave us?

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Politics

U.S. Rep. Colin Allred Shouts Out Mike Rawlings

| 4 months ago

U.S. Rep. Colin Allred yesterday gave a minute of his time to honor outgoing Mayor Mike Rawlings in front of Congress. Citing his “eight years of exceptional service to our city,” Allred sang the hits: the “grace and leadership” after the July 7 shooting, the new parkland and trails paid for through private dollars and bond funding, the attempt to “close the gaps of opportunity in our city,” and his constant travels abroad to market Dallas to outside investors. He ends with a quote from Maya Angelou, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” The whole thing is below. And if this makes you want to revisit Wick Allison’s exit interview with the mayor, here you are.

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Politics

Texas Monthly Shouts Out Good, Bad, ‘Cockroach’ North Texas Lawmakers on Annual List

| 4 months ago

Today, Texas Monthly posted its yearly feature on the best and worst legislators in Texas. As always, Dallas-Fort Worth is well-represented, in all kinds of ways.

Stickland

Bedford Rep. Jonathan Stickland has been on the bad side of TM’s list for two straight years. He’s been dishonored around these parts, as well. He tried to kill a bipartisan mental health bill on a simple technicality just last month. Par for the course. So TM decided to name Sticky their first “cockroach,” because he “accomplishes nothing but always manages to show up in the worst possible way.” On the bad list this year, McKinney Senator Angela Paxton gets a nod after filing legislation that could’ve helped cool the hot water around her husband, Attorney General Ken Paxton. And Plano Rep. Jeff Leach shows up for “cozying up to power” and pandering to voters.

There are a couple of high notes. We have Dallas Rep. Victoria Neave earning a spot for pushing Texas to reckon with its rape-kit backlog. Rep. Julie Johnson, also of Dallas, takes home freshman of the year. Johnson helped create the LGBTQ caucus and walked the walk by using a point of order to weaken what became the “Chick-fil-A” bill. Dive into the feature here.

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