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Local Texas leaders say too much power is centered in Austin - and they want control back

Judge Eddie Trevino, for one, says there’s been a dramatic change over the last 10 – 12 years in how Austin operates.
Credit: WFAA

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — As county judges, commissioners and other local leaders got together to talk about the future of the state, many openly wondered what ever happened to the notion that here in Texas, one size doesn’t fit all. And what works in Tarrant County, may not work as well down in Cameron County.

“They seem to be intent upon trying to centralize folks, all the power into Austin, where I believe they feel like they can have more influence on the elected officials there. And I think it's caused a great deal of damage to Texas and the citizens of Texas,” Judge Glen Whitley said on this week's Y’all-itics.

Republican Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley and Democratic Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino were just two of the local leaders from across Texas to meet in College Station for three days to discuss policy and politics at the Conference for Urban Counties. Some met in person. But the Omicron surge led many to attend virtually. And in a first for Y’all-itics, the podcast was recorded before that live audience.

While many issues were discussed while we there, the conversation tended to gravitate towards the rules coming out of Austin. Judge Trevino, for one, says there’s been a dramatic change over the last 10–12 years. He says statewide leaders in Austin now simply tell the rest of Texas they know what’s best, so just listen to them and do what they say.

“It doesn't make any sense to me because all we're doing is spinning our wheels and spending a lot of time, energy and resources where we're not getting anything accomplished and they're just trying to make sure that, like he said, they have full control in Austin. If that was the case, why do you have school boards? Why do you have county Commissioners? It just doesn't make any sense,” Trevino said.

Listen to the full episode of this week's Y'all-itics:

But these are local leaders, so there were plenty of other problems to discuss and game plan for during the conference. And as we approach the one-year anniversary of the power grid meltdown in Texas that left hundreds dead and billions in damage, many fear the grid still isn’t ready for another winter storm, even after all of the promises we’ve heard out of Austin.

“Well, let's just say that I'm praying more that we don't have to test it than I am we're all confident that if we test it, it'll succeed,” Whitley said.

And county-level leaders always take the brunt of criticism when it comes to rising property taxes. But these County Judges are quick to point out that an increase is often preceded by a mandate coming out of Austin.

“If the state passes a law and they don't fund it, that means we have to fund it and for 90% of us that means the only funding mechanism we have is property tax,” Whitley said. “So, I have been very careful to always describe it now as a state mandated property tax increase because even though I've got to increase it, they mandated that I had to increase it when they passed the law and didn't fund it.”

And in terms of pure politics, we are in primary season after all. So these leaders will be watching the election, albeit through different prisms.

Judge Trevino, the Democrat from the southernmost county in Texas, says his party needs to start rethinking its messaging, especially as the GOP is making a concerted effort to attract voters in the Rio Grande Valley. He says family, faith and community remain vitally important to voters in that region of Texas. And there’s also the message of growth and opportunity.

“We're a huge, huge area of a lot of people. And the growth that we're experiencing with the port of Brownsville, with SpaceX, with the LNG's, with everything else that's going on Valley-wide, the investment in our infrastructure, I just think that we've been found out,” Trevino said. “Because it's a growing area, it would only make sense that the Republicans would want to get a better foothold here”

Meantime, this is Whitley’s last year in office. First elected county judge in 2007, he will retire at the end of 2022. And Whitley says his Republican party has changed over those years and he hopes it moves away from the extremes.

“I'm hopeful that they will come back more to what I believe is the Republican Party and not so much the Libertarian Party or the Radical Party,” Whitley said. “We've got some fixing to do in the Republican Party. And if we don't fix it, if we don't come back more to the pro-business, if we don't come back more to working to help our people, then we're going to have some tough times ahead of us over the next 10 years.”

Property Taxes. The Power Grid. Even whiskey. These local leaders discussed it all with the Jasons. Hear how they’d tackle some of your most pressing problems in the latest episode of Y’all-itics.

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