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City of Austin among the winners of legislative session

Tuesday, June 2, 2009 by Austin Monitor

The Senate adjourned on Monday night, harshly critical of the House’s inaction on passing “safety net” legislation that would stop agencies under sunset review from ceasing operations. A special session called by the Governor, if not imminent, does appear to be in the near future to continue operations of both the Texas Department of Insurance and Texas Department of Transportation, among others.


In other words, they’ll be back. Not to mention that the Legislature’s use of stimulus funding must still be reviewed by Washington bureaucrats. The speculation is that agency funding for education will not meet federal guidelines.


But for the City of Austin it was a good session.


Intergovernmental Relations Officer John Hrncir has pronounced his satisfaction with the legislative session ending Monday—at least insofar as the city is concerned. For the most part, the city’s position has been defensive, so Austin counts the “bad bills” that did not make it into law as victories at the end of the session.


For example, Hrncir said, the city and other groups opposed a bill by Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston) which would have forced the city to have an election—without a petition from voters—if the governmental entity adopted a tax rate above the rollback rate. Other bills would have lowered the rollback rate from the current 8 percent to 5 percent.


“Obviously various people had campaigned on it and they probably got more attention this session than in previous sessions,” Hrncir said.  Asked to explain why those bills failed, Hrncir said it was a combination of factors. In part, he attributed the tax bills’ lack of progress “partly because of some shifts toward moderates, particularly in the House.” He said the change in Speakers from Tom Craddick to Joe Straus “indicates a moderate shift that mitigates against the more extreme pieces of legislation.


“And the other reason is various local governmental entities, including school districts and cities, banded together and were effective in explaining the problems caused by (revenue) caps,” he said.


In addition, he said, “There were a number of actions filed that were related to water, provisions in bills that would have had a negative effect on our water utility,” Hrncir added. “It was a very busy session for our water utility,” following legislation related to municipal utility districts, as well as some governing certificates of convenience and necessity (CCNs). All of those bills either died or were amended to be acceptable generally to the cities, he said.  “We were probably more involved than most other cities but other cities were involved, too.”


Austin’s new requirement of green energy audits on older homes is still in place after the Legislature failed to pass realtor-backed legislation that would prohibit Austin from requiring such inspections. The clean energy audit, required on homes 10 years or older when they go on the market, is expected to cost around $300.  Amendments to prohibit the portion of the ordinance making failure to conduct the audits a Class C misdemeanor, attached to solar legislation, failed to pass this session, which ended at midnight on June 1. The audit requirement went into effect yesterday also.


Other bills that failed to make it through the lengthy and complicated process included some that would have limited the city’s authority to enact land use regulations, known as a regulatory takings bill, Hrncir said. Another bill requiring the city to have single-member districts failed to even make it out of committee.


On a positive note, the city supported legislation allowing its Municipal Court to change the method it uses to record trials that will save the city money. Currently state law requires the city to use court reporters that wear a recording mask over their faces and they repeat everything that is said during a trial. The court reporter then makes the transcript of the trial allowing a defendant to appeal a negative verdict. However, there are not always enough court reporters to go around and their services are expensive. The city plans to use an automatic recording system in its new facility in northeast Austin. The legislation approved this session will allow the city to use the automated system. Austin Sen. Kirk Watson and Rep. Elliott Naishtat carried the legislation.


The city also supported a bill that would have allowed non-civil service employees to be represented by a union in a meet-and-confer process. That legislation failed to pass. Hrncir explained, “Right now, police, fire and EMS employees have either collective bargaining or meet-and-confer. Other employees do not. The bill would give them the right to do the same thing.”


Hrncir said there was concern in some quarters that the right would become statewide, “that it wouldn’t be limited just to Austin.” For example, Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business registered against the bill when it went through the Senate committee, even though the bill was narrowly written to apply only to Austin.


There were some rumblings Monday night after sine die that Republicans would try to get a special session. If that were to happen, some of these issues might return sooner than 2011.

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