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Austin seeks to protect powers,

Tuesday, January 16, 2001 by

In land use, electric deregulation

Austin becoming more like other cities, Hrncir says

Texas lawmakers can always count on the state’s cities to jealously guard their territory and their regulatory powers, and to increase those powers whenever possible. This session will be no exception, says John Hrncir, Austin’s government relations officer.

A draft of the city's legislative program for the 77th Legislative session is a mix of the things that the city wants to protect—regulatory authority for land-use development and guidelines for deregulating electric utilities next year—and the things the city wants to gain—an extended statute of limitations on sexual assault crimes and DNA testing for felons upon conviction, rather than upon sentencing to state prison.

That's just the short list for the city. For much of the session—at least after April Fool's Day—legislators will be embroiled in redistricting issues. And redistricting, says government relations officer John Hrncir, is an insiders’ game. The city's lobbyists will be watching much of the debate and negotiation from the sidelines.

“Of course, it's going to have consequences that are important to us,” Hrncir said. “We want to make sure the city's interests aren't unfairly diluted by the new lines.” He said it is in the city’s best interest to have representatives whose entire district is inside the city.

The Austin City Council will be taking up the legislative agenda at its meeting on Jan. 25. Hrncir and his staff of four in the downtown Chase Bank Building will be working with a dozen lobbyists this session, including the former lobbying team for Circle C developer Gary Bradley, Robert and Gordon Johnson. The lobbying budget this session is just over $800,000.

The basic cornerstone of the city's legislative program is to oppose legislation that reduces the city's authority or increases the city's costs. Hrncir's job is to be the liaison between the city departments and the lobbying team. Among the requests Hrncir has fielded and put on the agenda for consideration:

• Support legislation that enables counties, especially urban counties, to zone for certain uses, and provides counties with explicit rulemaking authority over water quality, flood plain management and drainage system design. • Support legislation requiring sufficient drainage infrastructure in new developments to control flooding, erosion and water quality. • Oppose legislation eliminating or limiting the city’s ability to set rates and terms of servicefor municipally-provided water and wastewater. • Oppose legislation that would reduce cities’ ability to control rights-of-way and collect fees for right-of-way rental.

Police Chief Stan Knee has requested DNA testing as soon as someone is convicted of a sex offense. DNA samples of those exonerated of the sexual offense would be destroyed. On the public safety front, the city may also pursue increased appropriations for DNA sample testing at the DPS crime lab and extension of the statute of limitations for sexual assault crimes from 5 years to at least 10 years. There are also those who would rewrite some laws dealing with substance abuse, for example, laws that establish requirements for treatment.

The city will pay careful attention to the sunset advisory reviews of the Texas Natural Resource Commission, the Texas Water Development Board and the Railroad Commission, Hrncir said. Controversial riders on environmental issues are often attached to the bills to restructure agencies. The city will also monitor a sunset bill for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for possible impact on city parks.

The Capital Metro tax cap will be an issue for the city, but Hrncir said he's heard no strong opinion from the City Council as a whole on the issue. The city is likely to follow the transit agency's lead on the issue, which would be to oppose lowering the tax revenues below the levels adopted in the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's Long-Range Transportation Plan.

The city also intends to closely monitor any adjustments to Senate Bill 7, which articulates electric utililities deregulation, beginning in 2002. “We support the legislation that was enacted,” Hrncir said. “We could see some tinkering.”

The city will also be monitoring potential changes in the state's framework for addressing the federal Clean Air Act that may come out of the current session. Smaller goals include giving cities the option of design/build construction contracts for infrastructure, supporting legislation that addresses the issues of gentrification, encouraging incentives for water reuse and supporting increases in Medicaid benefits and coverage.

Hrncir said the city's agenda agrees on many issues with that of the Texas Municipal League. Austin was once at odds with the Legislature, Hrncir said. It was a liberal town in the middle of a conservative state. As time passes and Austin grows, however, Austin's interests are merging with the state's other major cities.

John Hrncir: Austin's legislative watchdog

John Hrncir is not a flashy guy.

Hrncir is probably not the type of person you might expect to head Austin’s legislative lobbying effort. He’s not a back-slapping good ol’ boy. He doesn’t spend a lot of time seeking the media spotlight. He doesn’t haunt the House offices or pick up the tab for dinner with a couple of senators. And he’s not one to call attention to himself or his efforts on behalf of the city.

Instead, the 52-year-old Hrncir is the bridge between the city’s department he aids and the team of lobbyists Austin hires each session to represent various interests. He coordinates the players. He figures out which bills to track and how they might impact the city. He sets priorities based on the input he gets from 28 department heads and Council Members, and develops talking points. He is a facilitator.

Hrncir admits he may not be what most would expect from Austin’ government relations officer. He is analytical by nature and a scientist by training. Although he grew up in Hallettsville, Hrncir spent much of his early adulthood in Central Texas: first as an undergraduate and graduate student at Southwest Texas State University, then as a military officer stationed at Bergstrom Air Force Base and finally as a member of the lab staff at UT MD Anderson Cancer Center Science Park in Smithville.

It was Hrncir’s own foray into local politics in his own hometown, and his running Smoot Carl-Mitchell’ s successful campaign for Austin City Council in 1985, that led Hrncir further into lawmaking. He served as Mitchell’s council aide and then worked in the environmental policy sector of the Lower Colorado River Authority. He eventually moved to the governmental relations department at the LCRA and served as a deputy under Nancy Barnes. He moved over to the city in 1992.

Hrncir estimates he and his staff will track about a quarter of the bills that are filed this session that affect Austin. He knows a little bit about everyone’s issues, from airports and hospitals to parks and cemeteries. Much of Hnrcir’s time is spent in his office reviewing bills, contacting people and making sure riders work, rather than at the Capitol.

“Our consultants are the primary ones the lawmakers will see at the Capitol,” said Hrncir, adding that March is when the heaviest workload falls on his staff. “The volume of bills will make it very intense. We will spend very long hours here, often late at night, reviewing bills.”

Hrncir has served as the head of the city’s lobbying team for the last three sessions and was fairly satisfied with last session’s results. As he told Mayor Kirk Watson and the City Council in a recent memo, better than 90 percent of the city’s priority bills were passed last session. He considered electric deregulation and the overhaul of the annexation code to be a success. The fact that Austin lost on HB 1704 “was a disappointment, but it wasn’t a surprise,” Hrncir said.

The grandfather legislation had been in effect since the mid-’80s and had been inadvertently repealed during the 75th Legislature. That repeal was clearly not the intent of lawmakers, Hrncir said. Still, knowing it would be an uphill battle, the city “spent a lot of effort in opposition to the reinstatement,” he said.

“At every point we could, we opposed it—when it was at the committee, when it came out of committee, when it was set for the calendar—but it didn’t work,” Hrncir said. “At none of those critical points in the bill did we have the votes to stop it.”

When he’s away from policymaking, Hrncir enjoys music, as well as backpacking and whitewater rafting in the Southwest.

©2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Party time . . . Mayor Kirk Watson is attending a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors this week in Washington, D.C. The noted Democrat is also scheduled to attend the Texas Black Tie and Boots Inaugural Ball Friday night . . . Speaking of inaugurations. . . Next Saturday, the Democracy Coalition has planned a counter-inauguration protest, and a counter-inaugural ball. The group’s slogan for these events is “He's Not My President.” The rally at Republic Park (4th and Guadalupe) starts at 2 p.m., with a march to the Capitol at 2:30. The counter-inaugural ball will be at the Mexican-American Cultural Center on Town Lake, beginning at 8 p.m. . . . Welcome to Austin . . . Jerry Rusthoven, executive assistant to Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, and his wife, Patty, are the proud parents of a baby girl, Alicia Ann, born Jan. 9. Rusthoven is taking a few days off to be with his family . . . Also celebrating. . . Jeff Jack, executive assistant to Council Member Beverly Griffith, celebrated his birthday Saturday night with a houseful of friends, including members of the Downtown Commission, the Urban Transportation Commission, the Water and Wastewater Commission and the Planning Commission . . . Mueller meeting . . . The Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition will meet tonight at 6:30 p.m. at the Asbury United Methodist Church.

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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