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Austin attorney watching Legislature for city

Friday, April 10, 2015 by Jo Clifton

Cary Grace, an assistant city attorney who is serving as Austin’s deputy intergovernmental relations officer, is counting the days until the end of this Legislative session. On Thursday, she noted that there were 53 days remaining.

Those are 53 days that will be primarily devoted to stopping legislation that Austin and other cities perceive as harmful to their interests. Grace talked about some of that legislation for an audience at the city’s Open Government Symposium on Thursday.

Noting that she works with representatives of other cities as well as the Texas Municipal League, Grace said, “Austin is very fortunate. We meet and strategize with other large cities throughout the state. It’s a very collaborative effort.”

Although there are many bills that seek to erode local control one issue at a time, Grace said, those working on behalf of cities agree, “There’s not going to be one particular vote on municipal local control during the session. No one bill just throws out the concept of local control. But there are dozens and dozens of bills that would chip away, issue by issue, at the ability of local communities to solve their own problems in their own way.”

She added, “I’m sure that some of you read the media coverage in January when our newly elected Gov. Abbott made the statement that Texas was being California-ized. And he went on to say that a patchwork quilt of local bans and rules and regulations are eroding the Texas model. So that sentiment has perpetuated throughout the session.”

Grace said that she and other city representatives were seeing “more than the usual number of bills designed to usurp cities’ ability to make policy locally.”

Among those she noted were bills to prohibit ordinances related to regulating plastic bags, red light cameras, fracking and transportation network companies as well as one that would prohibit any kind of regulation not expressly allowed by state law.

A hearing in the House Transportation Committee related to TNCs, HB 2440, began early Thursday morning and was still going Thursday evening. Among those testifying against the bill was Austin Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo. Tovo noted that officials from other cities, including Houston and Dallas, were also on hand to tell legislators that they should not adopt a measure that would create state regulations and eliminate local rules for transportation networking companies.

Grace said after the meeting that she considered herself an optimist. “I think that all of the cities are doing a good job of relaying the message. Some things have been referred (to committee) and never had a hearing. We only have 53 days of the session left. So that faint sound that you hear is bills dying. Not just bills that we don’t want to have pass, but lots of bills are dying.

“The one bill that is the furthest along is the bill by Sen. Charles Perry from West Texas that would undo the City of Austin’s source of income ordinance,” Grace continued. She explained that Austin Sen. Kirk Watson had amended the bill in committee to grandfather Austin’s ordinance. However, she noted there is no guarantee that the House will keep that language. It still has to have a House hearing and make it onto the House floor for consideration.

The entire state of Oklahoma has source of income protection, she noted.

Dallas also has an interest in the bill, Grace said, because it was considering passage of similar legislation at the urging of the federal Housing and Urban Development Department. According to Grace, Texas is in danger of losing federal funds if the state fails to show that it is promoting fair housing. There is also a lawsuit over the matter brought by the Austin Apartment Association.

Photo by Phil Roeder, available through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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