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Council aims to narrow city’s legislative goals in 2009

Friday, December 5, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The phrase for Austin’s legislative agenda in the coming session should be “less is more.”

The city learned its lesson last session. Too much of an agenda is simply… well… too much. So the city’s chief lobbyist John Hrncir has honed in on a shorter list of primary issues and a small number of issues for various departments.

First on the list is to oppose revenue or appraisal caps. That is the priority of Council Member Sheryl Cole – the one-time counsel for the Texas Municipal League – who considers the need to protect the city’s financial position to be her top concern.

“Anything that affects our financial stability in this market is going to be critical,” Cole said. “We are one of the few states where the state does not give us (cities) money. One of the tacit understandings is that – because of that – we are able to take care of ourselves. Any attacks on that limits our ability to maintain our own financial independence.”

Other top priorities, which will be presented to Council formally on Dec. 11, include opposing legislation that would reduce the city’s ability to protect the environment; support for additional funding options for city and regional transportation projects; support for a $200 million appropriation for the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund; and introduction and passage of meet-and-confer legislation for non-civil service employees.

Additionally, the city wants more funding for health programs to support the uninsured and underinsured; protection of the zoning authority cities currently have; and support for the urban counties’ efforts to gain increased land development authority outside city limits.

Council Member Randi Shade said it would be important for the city to be agile and ready for whatever happens. For Shade, the issues are public health and affordable housing. She also pledges continued support to lower barriers for the city’s minority and small business program.

“Any areas where we can increase funding, those are the highest priority,” Shade said. “In the legislative process, a lot of it has to do with killing bills. We want to make sure we don’t have bills that prevent us from doing what we have to do. To protect our ability to set our own destiny is key.”

Council Member Laura Morrison said the legislative priorities were the result of Council input to John Hrncir in August. Morrison was still reviewing the list but said it was important to make sure the Council was careful about its priorities. The Travis County delegation is going to be busy this session, and it will be important to make sure the priorities promoted by Council are targeted, Morrison said.

Council Member Mike Martinez also is concerned about maintaining and securing the city’s present financial position. He also expressed concern about the funding of infrastructure, especially along the SH 130 corridor. Much of that burden – when the area is developed – will fall to the City of Austin. Martinez wants to be sure the city keeps its eye on annexation law that will allow growth to occur.

It is no surprise that Martinez also would have an opinion on meet and confer legislation. Council is still supportive of the concept, but it’s going to be difficult to get meet and confer passed for non-civil servants, especially since the state will continue to have a Republican-controlled House and Senate, Martinez said.

A former firefighter, Martinez agrees with the city’s decision not to support any increase in pension entitlements for firefighters.

“(Firefighters) certainly have the right to go for increased entitlements via the Legislature because their pension is controlled by state statute,” Martinez said. However, since firefighters rejected a contract, which included the city’s acquiescence in legislation requiring increase benefits, the city cannot now support such an increase.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell is still reviewing the legislative priority document as well. While Leffingwell – the former chair of the Environmental Board – likely will focus on environmental issues, he is also concerned about the meet and confer for city employees. He supports a lean and focused agenda.

“Our game plan was supposed to be this year that we would restrict our agenda to a few items,” Leffingwell said. “The lesson we learned last session was trying to pass too much.”

But Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken is interested in addressing one issue that’s not on the agenda right now: What it will take to get the Pecan Street project off the ground. Austin may need some type of exceptions – perhaps in the permitted rate structure – to get the city’s newest green energy effort off the ground. McCracken said it’s still early, but Austin should have a good idea about any possible need for legislative changes by spring.

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