Are Texas Republicans the party of big government?

GOP-controlled state Legislature has increasingly sought to overturn local laws.

By Sean SaldanaApril 18, 2023 2:27 pm,

If there’s one thing Texans appear to loathe, it’s being told what to do.

Independence and thumbing your nose at authority seems to be part of the Lone Star State’s ethos and it’s one of the reasons why Texans have historically valued small conservative government – at least that’s been the narrative. 

Texas Monthly senior editor Michael Hardy recently made the case that Texas Republicans who control the Legislature have become a party of big government. He joined Texas Standard to discuss. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You know, I think a lot of folks recall the days when Republicans were often talking about big government as the enemy. How do you come to the conclusion that Republicans in Texas have become the party of big government? 

Michael Hardy: Well, that’s what they have said themselves. They believe that big Texas cities like Houston and Dallas have become too liberal and are infringing on the rights of their own citizens and of business. And so they feel like they have the right to overrule those things. 

You know, I can recall once upon a time, there were a lot of folks in the Republican Party who said that the best government is local government. But you write, “the erosion of local authority has been a hallmark of Governor Abbott’s tenure.” Did this trend of the Legislature overriding local laws begin or start ramping up with Gov. Abbott, or does this not go back a bit further to the Perry administration?

So there’s some elements of it that precede Abbott, but I think the key date is Nov. 4, 2014. That’s when Abbott was elected and that’s when Denton voters passed a fracking ban, which turned out to be extremely controversial and the Legislature ended up overturning it. And Abbott, even before taking office, warned that Texas was becoming California-ized and that’s what was happening in these blue Democratic cities. 

This session there have been legislative bills dealing with things as seemingly ground level as local zoning codes. How did Texas Republicans try to square this with their position as being advocates for small government?

They essentially advocate a kind of a Goldilocks approach to government. The federal government is too big, and local governments, city governments are too small. And they essentially say that the state government, which is, you know, centered in Austin and is controlled by Republicans, has rightful authority to regulate the affairs of Texas.

I think some people, certainly Democrats, have sensed a certain level of hypocrisy that when Republicans are in control at the state level, they look up the food chain and they say, “hey, listen, this is wrong.” What would you say to that?

Well, it’s not my job to determine whether they’re being hypocrites or not. But there’s been a change in focus. I talked to a former GOP state chairman, Wayne Thorburn, who told me that when he was starting out in the seventies and eighties, the focus of conservatives in Texas was small government and local control. And that’s changed. As Republicans, the constituency has become more rural and shifted away from the cities. So now the focus, he said, is on using the state to advance these cultural war issues and implement its vision for what Texas should look like.

Let me ask you one other quick question while I got you on the line here, Michael – does this present an opportunity for Texas Democrats? 

Well, perhaps. But they’ve squandered every other opportunity for decades now. They haven’t won a statewide race since 1994. So it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to capitalize on it.

It’s hard for me to imagine Texas Democrats being the party of small government. That’s not really something that they’ve ever embraced, to my knowledge.

It hasn’t historically been their identity. So it’s unclear what argument they would make. You know, they would probably say something like “this is trampling on the rights of cities.” You know, the people I spoke to who passed the Denton fracking ban were just disgusted that they had passed these ordinances in Denton and then they were just struck down by the state Legislature. So they might make the argument that this is anti-democratic because local cities have certain rights under the Texas Constitution, and those are being preempted by the state. 

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