Politics and Governance

The Great Texas Land Grab: Municipal Annexation and the “Right” to Decide Where You Live

Back in August, I attended a Policy Primer titled “The Great Texas Land Grab” hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). The majestic offices were appropriate for a group that can (through its affiliation with the State Policy Network) trace a significant portion of its funding to the Koch brothers. There were three panelists scheduled to speak about the issue of municipal annexation: State Senator Donna Campbell, State Representative Dan Huberty, and Mayor Art Martinez of Von Ormy, Texas.

Director James Quintero of the Center for Local Governance was the moderator and he began by reminding everyone of TPPF’s mission: to bring conservatism to all levels of the Texas Government. Although the Texas legislature failed to reform municipal annexation this past session, he declared “our side has the momentum.”

On that note, Senator Campbell spoke first. She recounted her efforts this past session to pass SB 1639, legislation that would have reformed municipal annexation. The bill aimed to make it so communities must vote to approve being annexed. It never made it to the floor.  She asked, “how many of you believe you have a right to decide where you live?” All hands in the room went up. Senator Campbell’s district is in Bexar County, on the northwest side of San Antonio. The city has recently begun the process to annex 66 square miles of Bexar County, much of it in her district. In total, 200,000 would count themselves new San Antonio residents. She complained that even though the city can start taxing annexed residents right away, San Antonio will have 4 years before it has to provide essential services to those residents.  She argued that San Antonio wants to annex the land “to pay for growing government and ballooning debt.” San Antonio is second in total debt for a Texas municipality (behind Houston), but is first in debt per capita. “Is that right? Is that Texas? No!”

Representative Dan Huberty presented a more moderate tone. He represents and lives in Kingwood, 30 miles outside Houston. He admitted that he enjoys being part of the Houston area, but despite his communication with the City he isn’t convinced of its efforts to annex Kingwood. Huberty laid out some arguments he’s heard before: when told that Kingwood residents benefit from the roads maintained by Houston, he countered that Kingwood residents pay the gas tax, which pays for roads; when told that Kingwood residents benefit from social services, he pointed out the sales tax which pays for state services. Houston further complains that cities in Texas receive less state funds than cities in other states. Ostensibly, other states recognize that cities provide infrastructure that benefit entire regions. When Texas refuses to fund its cities, it becomes necessary that municipalities annex high-income areas around the city limits to add to the tax base. Huberty responded to this rationale:

“Last I checked all the new highways that were being built in Houston are mostly interstate highways, which are funds distributed by the state government, and the Metro which goes through much of Harris county also receives similar funds… I don’t mind that the city wants to annex us with the intention to provide services, but the fact of the matter is that simply is not the case.”

He then described the growing use of limited purpose districts. In the case of Kingwood, the City of Houston approached them with a deal: Kingwood would need to raise its sales tax by one penny; half the penny would go to Houston, the other half to Kingwood. In exchange, the city of Houston promised not to annex Kingwood for at least 30 years. To Huberty, this was Houston’s end goal. They wanted to increase their tax base without increasing the burden of services. Kingwood’s income was siphoned off without receiving additional services. According to Huberty, this practice is gaining popularity in Texas.

The last to speak was Art Martinez, mayor of Von Ormy. He spoke about how his community struggled when trying to incorporate. When San Antonio annexed nearby areas, Von Ormy found itself inside San Antonio’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ). Now they had to get the City’s permission to incorporate. Being a part of the ETJ also unjustly imposed San Antonio’s fee schedule and regulations on the community, even though they were not voting residents. Due to this, farmers who regularly burned weeds to manage their land were now required to obtain a $200 permit to burn any material for a single day. In another instance, a father was unable to gift a mere 4 acres to his son for his wedding day because it would require setting sidewalks across the land, making it fiscally unfeasible. Mayor Martinez then made an interesting observation: cities are blurring the city/county distinction. They are growing so large that entire counties are dominated by a single city. These cities can also take a disproportionate amount of county resources. For instance, county funds for libraries is distributed nearly entirely to San Antonio. In fact, Martinez was unaware of a single library outside city limits. Martinez then stated that he is not opposed to annexation, and neither of the bills proposed by Campbell and Huberty aimed to get rid of it. In fact, both bills allowed for the annexation process to be expedited if a community votes to be part of the municipality. Instead, Martinez hoped that requiring community consent for annexation would force the city to “come to the table with something.”

After the panel members spoke, I recalled Senator Campbell’s words about the “right” to decide where you live. I wondered why no one went deeper into that “right.”  As someone with a working class background, it was clear to me that this right only exists for those with wealth. Those in poverty often spend the majority of their lives trapped in the same neighborhood. But the wealthy, finding the realities of urban life distasteful (crime, noise, taxes) exercise their “right” to move outside city limits and create suburbs with authority structures that protect their wealth. And they don’t owe anything to the people who made their success possible. They leave the working poor stranded in the inner city, refusing to sufficiently contribute to the services necessary to improve their lives. I can’t help but suspect that those who subscribe to TPPF’s ideology also believe that it’s poor people’s fault that they “choose” to stay in the same place all their lives instead of seeking opportunity elsewhere. The conservative rationale often finds a way to prove that the poor choose to be poor.

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