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Many Travis County measures fail to pass at Legislature

Thursday, June 4, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

Getting issues through the 81st Legislature turned out to be a difficult task for Travis County. Out of 21 bills the Commissioners Court had marked as “legislative priorities,” nine are heading to Gov. Rick Perry either on their own or as amendments to other bills. Deece Eckstein, the county’s coordinator of  Intergovernmental Relations, told In Fact Daily he would grade the county a “B” for this session.


In terms of county land use authority, the court had indicated they were interested in several bills addressing buffers, impact fees, stormwater management, Hill Country land use, extraterritorial jurisdiction, billboards, utility relocation and the BSEACD expansion.


However, only Sen. Kirk Watson and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez’s stormwater management bill made it through the process. The bill provides Travis County the authority to regulate stormwater and recover some of the costs associated with that. Eckstein told commissioners a bill preventing erection of billboards in certain areas of the county was, “the last item killed on the house local and consent calendar on the last night in which a bill could pass.” As for the other items, Eckstein told the court, “land use issues and county regulatory authority issues continue to be very vexing issues for the members of the Texas Legislature.”


The county also had some difficulties with its transportation bills— notably Sen. John Carona’s efforts for local option transportation funding which met a controversial death at the end of the session. Another bill addressing Fund 6 diversions likewise did not get out of Calendars. HB 1047 would have redirected billions of dollars in gas tax money flowing to non-highway related agencies back into TxDOT. Eckstein told commissioners he was surprised by the result. Early in the session, he said Fund 6 “was the subject of much legislation and a lot of talk,” and he believed there was consensus.


Perhaps the area Travis County saw the most success for its priorities was in Criminal Justice Reform. A series of related bills tackling re-entry back into the community from the community were all added on as amendments and successfully advanced. Additionally, a bill relating to temporary housing costs is on its way to the Governor.


The final area of priority legislation addressed what Eckstein called “courts management.” Travis County supported bills that involved longevity pay adjustment for judges, creating a presiding criminal courts judge, special court fees, a warrant fee increase and early retiree health benefit options. Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace Susan Steeg was commended for her efforts on a bill on deferred disposition fines that Eckstein said would make courts run more effectively and save money.


Despite these successes the failure of nearly all of the land use bills stung the Travis staff and commissioners. Eckstein told In Fact Daily, “We’re rolling a pretty big rock up a pretty long hill with that.”


Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber told the court there was some positive news. She thanked allies in the community, including some in “the real estate community and home builders communities for pushing forward some of our bills. I think it’s important that our constituents who are supporting us and wanting us to get more county authority to know that it’s very hard to beat the lobby big money interests and the special interests that work behind the scenes on these bills.”


Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt echoed some of Huber’s thoughts. “As far as the land use bill, it was truly an instance yet again of some very popular positions put down by a very small number of people. So those of us who are in support of land use will keep trying….We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we did make some very good alliances in areas where we didn’t have those relationships before and we’re building upon them and it is thanks in great measure to you all.”

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