Texas should empower local innovation, not block it, argues a new ‘Metropolitan Blueprint’

Among recommendations to exit the deadlocks characterizing Texas’ state and local governance are new taxing authority for local government, more autonomy on local land use decision-making, and creative state support for community colleges

Austin and Texas’ other major cities lead both U.S. economic and population growth
Photo: Jeremy Banks via Unsplash

If Texas is to continue its dramatic growth economically and demographically, slow-moving state lawmakers need to get out of the way of the fast-moving cities that are driving the success story but hampered by old mindsets of governance.

A new “Metropolitan Blueprint” for the state produced by three leading research universities and published March 24 makes that case far more diplomatically. And three panels of more than a dozen experts who contributed to the report, and who discussed it in a live conference the same day, made the argument more politely.

But as Texas’ transforms from its storied oil and cattle economy now eclipsed by high technology, manufacturing, research, and other “new economy” sectors, the rivalry between the state and local levels of authority are a kind of Gordian Knot, the report suggests. And that knot is tying up policy changes needed desperately in education, housing, health care and many other areas. This is the theme that runs through the study, conducted by the Urban Lab at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs and partnering research centers at Houston’s Rice University and Dallas’ Southern Methodist University.

It also was the concern that resonated among the conference panelists who included former U.S. Housing Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, a Democrat, and Margaret Spellings, a Republican and former U.S. Education Secretary, who now heads Texas 2036, a future-focused research organization in Dallas.

Spellings lamented “too much pulling in opposite directions,” by local and state leaders as she called for “aligned accountability between the state and its own actors.”

To which Cisneros concurred, adding, “it’s really about aligning on the the basic question at the heart of this report which is the way Texas is changing and the way it is urbanizing.”

Specifically, the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Austin metros are among the 10 fastest-growing in the United States. The Texas Triangle, the mega-region bounded by Dallas-Fort Worth in the north, Houston in the southeast, and San Antonio and Austin in the southwest, produces fully 80 percent of the state’s gross domestic product and accounts for nearly all of its venture capital investment.

While both the report and discussion skirted such recent high profile standoffs as those between state and city leaders on pandemic measures, fights between Gov. Greg Abbot and Harris County over voting access, or skirmishes between the governor and Austin over police reform, those dynamics were the unspoken backdrop.

“It’s a mistake for the state to pick fights with the cities,” said Cisneros.

The sweeping Texas Blueprint itself takes a more measured tone. It was authored by the UT Urban Lab’s Steven Pedigo, the head of Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research William Fulton and his deputy Kyle Shelton; and by Cullum Clark, who directs of SMU’s Bush Institute – SMI Economic Growth Initiative.

“Simply put, Texas should be empowering local innovation, not blocking it,” reads the study, formally named the Texas Metropolitan Blueprint – A Policy Agenda to Secure the Competitiveness and Prosperity of Texas. “Texas can thank its business-friendly climate for its rapid growth up until now. But for that growth to continue, the state needs to combine its pro-business approach with a slate of policies that allows it to consolidate its gains and address its challenges, one that drives its competitiveness and prosperity in ways that are fairer and more inclusive and that build a stronger quality of life and place for every Texan.”

Among the avenues it recommends for Texas to exit deadlocks characterizing Texas’ state and local governance:

  • The state and its metro areas must look for innovative and collaborative ways to expand the supply of affordable housing for the Texas workforce. Localities need flexibility on incentives and goals. Local incentives can create alignment among housing, infrastructure, and economic development. The state should support efforts to meet local priorities, including a “housing-first” strategy for the homeless to move more people from life on the streets to stability.
  • Local governments need more power to enact and enforce economically and ecologically sound zoning mandates, to raise money via taxes and fees, and to invest it in housing initiatives as they see fit.
  • High speed broadband needs to be brought to the one third of Texas homes without internet connectivity, a gap that has seriously impaired education for children during the pandemic.
  • Community colleges need support to work with major employers to develop a set of universally recognized credentials that are portable and readily transferable. Specifically noted is a state-run program in Tennessee that offers tuition free community college education to students in exchange for eight hours of community service per term.
  • As Texas cities contain vast areas of historical disinvestment and concentrated poverty, the state needs to collaborate with local government on new tools to bring greater economic vitality to these challenged areas.

Those are just a few of the Metropolitan Blueprint’s insights and recommendations.

“With exceptional growth come exceptional challenges, said UT Austin President Jay Hartzell, noting the unprecedented collaboration between institutions. “That’s why here at UT, through the work of the LBJ Urban Lab and others we’re leading the way in crafting policy that creates a more resilient, prosperous and connected Texas. Texas cities can be a policy laboratory that leads the way globally.”

The full report can be downloaded here.

In addition to Spelling and Cisneros, panelists included former Houston City Council Member Amanda Edwards, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce President Laura Huffman, former El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, Coalition for New Dallas chief Miguel Solis, Dallas property developer Jack Matthews, Dallas Innovation Alliance head Jennifer Sanders, chief of research for the Dallas Housing Authority Myriam Igoufe, and Leilah Powell who directs Local Initiatives Support Corporation in San Antonio.

A recording of their 90 minute discussion on the challenges of Texas cities and the Texas Blueprint can be viewed here.

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