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Referendum would let top Texas officials live outside Austin

🕐 4 min read

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Top Republicans sometimes grouse about having to live in liberal-leaning Austin, the capital of America’s largest conservative state but something of a blue hole to much of the rest of Texas’ red doughnut.

After Election Day, they may not have to.

A ballot initiative before voters Nov. 3 would modify the Texas Constitution to excuse statewide officeholders from requirements they live in the capital, with the exception of the governor and a few other posts.

Political observers say that while residency requirements in the state capital, or at least the surrounding metro area, are common for politicians across the country, Texas’ referendum to scrap such a mandate is not.

“This is the first one we’ve seen” in at least a decade, said Kae Warnock, policy specialist at the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks legislative activity around the country.

A Democrat hasn’t won statewide office in Texas since 1994 — the nation’s longest single-party losing streak — meaning all top state officials are Republicans. Still, even if the ballot initiative passes, none say they’ll abandon Austin, despite the city’s largely left-leaning politics and local ordinances that drive some conservatives batty, like bans on plastic grocery store bags.

The ballot initiative already was approved by two-thirds of the Texas House and Senate, sending it to voters. Its sponsor, Republican state Sen. Donna Campbell, said it wasn’t about escaping Austin, but rather acknowledging that modern technology means elected officials no longer need to be anchored to the capital city — as they had to be back in 1876 when the Texas Constitution was adopted.

“Austin’s great ,” said Campbell who lives in New Braunfels, about 50 miles from the capital and commutes back and forth during the legislative session. “But to mandate that someone must have a residency there — and if you don’t have the dollars, you have to sell your home and if you have a family you have to uproot your children — it’s an unfair burden.”

Opponents worried the ballot question would allow elected officials to reside in friendly counties, and therefore face lenient prosecutors should they be accused of wrongdoing.

But the Legislature approved this past session moving investigations of officeholders out of the longtime jurisdiction of an Austin-based anti-corruption unit. A new law allows the Texas Rangers to investigate, then turn cases over to prosecutors in the official’s home county.

Phillip Martin, deputy director of the liberal advocacy group Progress Texas, said that law could one day be repealed — but restoring the constitutional residency requirement will be far tougher should it be scrapped in November.

“Austin is the seat of government and I don’t want a computer in that seat,” Martin said. “The first priority should be what’s convenient for the people of Texas, not for the elected servants who have some of the greatest jobs in the world.”

Gov. Greg Abbott, who lives in the Greek Revival-style Governor’s Mansion a stone’s throw from the sand-colored state Capitol building, has no interest in leaving Austin.

“The answer would be no,” said John Wittman, an Abbott spokesman.

It turns out the governor won’t have that choice regardless of whether the ballot initiative passes. The proposed change doesn’t affect constitutional language mandating that the governor reside “at the seat of Government.”

The amendment also wouldn’t alter constitutional passages pertaining to the lieutenant governor. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is from Houston and already often spends time there when the Legislature isn’t in session.

Similarly unaffected are Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals justices. But that still means the agriculture and land commissioners, the comptroller, attorney general and railroad commissioners could hightail it out of Austin.

Attorney General Ken Paxton “has no plans to” move away, said Cynthia Meyer, a spokeswoman for his office. Paxton hails from McKinney and has been indicted there on federal securities fraud charges.

Though he’s from Fort Worth, Land Commissioner George P. Bush now owns an Austin home with his family and won’t move either, said Brittany Eck, a commissioner’s office spokeswoman.

Comptroller Glenn Hegar, meanwhile, “splits time between Austin and his hometown of Katy and will continue to do so,” said Lauren Willis, a spokeswoman for his office.

Agricultural Commissioner Sid Miller said the referendum “will have no effect on me” since he lives in Austin, though he does sometimes head back to his hometown of Stephenville to check on livestock and attend church.

“He has a ranch, cattle and he’s a nine-time world champion calf roper,” noted Todd Smith, Miller’s longtime political consultant. “So he has to go and check on his horses now and again.”

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