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Council looks back at 84th Legislative Session

Wednesday, June 10, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

At the conclusion of a Texas Legislative Session, Austin must inevitably sit back and lick its wounds. According to Interim Intergovernmental Relations Officer Karen Kennard, however, the city sustained far fewer direct blows to its local control this time around than it could have.

During a legislative briefing at a City Council work session on Tuesday, Kennard said the debate that the 84th Legislature engaged in was “dominated by the concept of liberty versus local control.”

Kennard pointed to a slew of failed bills as evidence that the city avoided — narrowly, in some cases — major losses in its ability to govern itself.

These include bills that would have effectively deregulated or limited the city’s control over Austin Energy, tossed out the single-use bag ordinance or “plastic bag ban,” preempted local regulations on transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft, removed parts of the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction and more.

Perhaps the most controversial of these bills was Senate Bill 1945, filed by Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), which would have given large Austin Energy customers or groups of customers an avenue to potentially break away from the utility, opening the door for its deregulation.

Kennard credited Fraser’s decision not to push the bill forward to efforts by Mayor Steve Adler and Council.

On the other hand, Kennard conceded, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 267, filed by Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), preempting an ordinance Council passed on Dec. 11 that prohibits property owners from discriminating against potential renters based on their sources of income. The bill, if Gov. Greg Abbott signs it, goes into effect Sept. 1.

Kennard said that bill includes exceptions that allow the city to enact source of income regulations related to military veterans and adopt a voluntary program to encourage property owners to accept housing vouchers such as those that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provides, also known as Section 8 vouchers.

There were also some missed opportunities, according to discussions between Kennard and Council members.

These include the failures of SB 279, filed by Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), which would have allowed cities to adopt a flat homestead tax exemption; House Bill 594, filed by Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin), which would have reduced tolls on SH 130; and SB 422, filed by Watson, which would have created a pilot program for transit buses to drive on highway shoulders.

Not all Council members agreed, however, on what constituted success or failure.

Council Member Don Zimmerman contested the city’s opposition to HB 2221, filed by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood). That bill would have required residents living outside of a city’s limits to vote in favor of annexation in certain situations before that city could annex the land on which they reside.

“I can pledge to you that when this comes back in two years, if I have the opportunity, I’m also going to get ahead of the issue,” Zimmerman said.

City Manager Marc Ott, Adler and several Council members publicly thanked Kennard, Deputy Intergovernmental Relations Officer Cary Grace, Law Department staff and all those involved in lobbying on behalf of the city for their work during the session.

“At the beginning of the session, newly in office, looking at the list of things that were under scrutiny or direct attack in this session,” Adler said, “it was a scary prospect to think of where we could have been had the legislative session gone differently with respect to the priorities that this Council has set over time.”

Council Member Leslie Pool wasted little time before looking ahead, stating that she and her colleagues should spend the next year and six months considering what legislation the city might want to bring forward.

“I’d like to … have the dais start thinking about having some proactivity with the Legislature and the 85th Session so that we’re more involved in the agenda that we have at the Capitol, recognizing that our posture is generally defensive, but it would be nice to have a positive brief to take forward,” she said.

Ott responded directly to Pool. “We hear that and look forward to the opportunity over the next year and a half to pursue those kinds of strategies as well,” Ott said.

Kennard also thanked those involved, said that the Government Relations Office must begin working with Council on the next legislative program, and added that the city needs to be prepared for likely upcoming legislative studies on annexation, plastic bag ordinances and similar items.

“There were lots of bills — I only went through a fraction of them — that would basically have the state dictating how we do our business, when we do our businesses and why we do our business, and I think those battles are continuing and they will continue during the interim,” Kennard said. “We need to be ready for that.”

The session officially ended on June 1 and the deadline for Abbott to sign or veto bills or line items is June 21.

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