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Austin, Travis get ready for 84th Texas Legislature

Monday, November 24, 2014 by Mark Richardson

With the specter of dealing with a Texas Legislature that has become even more conservative — if that is possible — with the Nov. 4 election, the City of Austin and Travis County reviewed and approved their respective legislative agendas last week.

The primary objectives for both the city and the county for the upcoming 84th Texas Legislature seems to be “stand your ground.” With more than a few people in the statehouse who do not like the way Austin does things, the mission for the folks who will represent local interests is to not allow any erosion of the status quo.

“What we’re doing — which is not unusual — is defensive,” said John Hrncir, the city’s government relations officer, who briefed City Council at last Tuesday’s work session. “We are protecting the city’s authority and allowing the residents of Austin, through their elected officials, to govern themselves and not be governed by those that aren’t from here.”

Travis County’s intergovernmental relations director, Deece Eckstein, said the changes to the legislature will be the most pronounced in the Senate.

“Certainly as a group, they will be more conservative than they have in the past, and (former state Sen.) Dan Patrick is going to be the new lieutenant governor,” Eckstein told Travis County Commissioners last week. “He has talked a lot about changes in the way in which Senate does business, including eliminating the two-thirds rule or modifying it somehow. There also has been talk about different committee chairs. It remains to be seen how all of that shakes out, but suffice to say the Senate will be a very different place this year.”

While elected bodies cannot technically lobby the legislature, most cities and counties do engage the services of people who look out for their interests and sometimes point out problems to their local legislators, who work to deal with the issue.

Austin’s primary objectives for the session include keeping legislators from: changing the electric market rules so that the city loses control of Austin Energy, any reductions in water rights or future water resources, the addition of any appraisal and/or revenue caps, extending unfunded mandates to the city and eroding the city’s ability to protect water quality and the environment.

Hrncir said he is still sizing up the incoming class of senators and representatives as far as their interest in what is euphemistically called “Austin bashing.”

“We’ll watch and see what develops,” he said. “I don’t know that Austin is going to be a particular target. So far, none of them have announced anything aimed specifically at Austin.”

Hrncir said cities in general will be wary of calls for property tax reforms in the upcoming session.

“Property tax reform means different things to different people,” he said. “When some of the newly elected officials talk about property tax reforms, they’re talking about revenue caps or appraisal caps. (But) when Travis County and Austin talk about property tax reform, they are talking about transparency in real estate transactions so we have accuracy in our appraisals.”

Travis County’s priorities are similar to those of the city, but more specific to trying to manage an urban county in Texas. Eckstein told Commissioners that the main county goals for the legislature are: to prevent unfunded mandates that divert county funds, to avoid caps on appraisals or revenues, to seek additional funding for programs that benefit county residents, to seek funds to approve mental health care in local communities and to encourage the legislature to give counties the tools to manage growth in unincorporated areas.

Eckstein was sailing along until he mentioned support for new transportation funds, including public transit and rail. Those last words got the attention of Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, a staunch opponent of spending money on mass transit when you could be building a road.

“It concerns me that (it) says ‘Support equitable additional funding for transportation infrastructure, including rail and public transit,’” Daugherty said. “Now, is ‘including rail’ missing a word — as in ‘freight’ rail — in front of that? Because I mean, hey, that horse left the barn on Election Day. It is pretty clear that the big money being spent on rail as it relates to passenger rail is something we need to take a good, hard look at.”

After a bit more back and forth, Eckstein pointed out that several areas of the state, such as Dallas and Houston, are investing heavily in rail and mass transit, and that Travis County should be asking for all the funding that is available.

The Texas Legislature will convene Jan. 13 and end somewhere around Memorial Day, unless the governor calls a special session.


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