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What will the Lege do to Austin this year?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017 by Jack Craver

The debate over local control that will likely play out in the coming months at the Texas Capitol was on display at a panel Tuesday morning hosted by Leadership Austin.

In a discussion that often veered into debate, three experts on the intersection of city and state policy gave their thoughts on how the current legislative session will affect cities’ ability to set their own rules on a variety of issues, from property taxes and immigration enforcement to ridesharing and plastic grocery bags.

Dick Lavine, a fiscal analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, described plans by Republican legislators to overrule ordinances put in place by municipal governments, specifically those approved via referendum by voters, as antithetical to the GOP’s traditional local control mantra.

“They seem to be more than happy at the state level to tell locals how things should be done. I think that’s hypocritical,” he said, highlighting three bills aimed at undoing Austin’s ordinance regulating transportation network companies as well as legislation signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2015 that barred municipalities from enacting ordinances against oil and gas exploration.

“I cannot imagine what excuse the legislature has to overrule the direct expression of democracy through an election (on a ballot initiative),” he added.

Beyond the typical “Austin-bashing,” said Lavine, the proposed GOP plans this session amount to an attempt to fundamentally reshape political power in Texas, centralizing as much of it as possible with the state.

Lavine and Brie Franco, who heads government relations for the city of Austin, also criticized a plan being pushed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to impose even stricter limits on the ability of municipalities to raise property taxes, saying it would threaten funding for essential services.

Currently, if a city raises property taxes by more than 8 percent in one year, citizens can prompt a vote on whether to “roll back” the increase to 8 percent if they gather enough signatures (7 or 10 percent of registered voters, depending on the size of the tax increase). Under Patrick’s proposal, the rollback rate would be cut in half to 4 percent and an election would automatically be triggered if the city exceeds it.

Franco said that such measures could lead to cuts in law enforcement and longer waits for 911 calls.

Robert Henneke, general counsel and director for the Center for the American Future, part of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, defended Republican plans and suggested it was irresponsible to get people “inflamed” by predicting the cuts would lead to fewer cops on the street.

Henneke, who said the role of government should be to “preserve, protect and defend liberty,” also argued that it wasn’t hypocritical for the state to upend local laws – even those approved by referendum – if they threaten individual freedoms. “Majority rules is not the end-all, be-all in our society. We don’t want a tyranny of the majority,” he said.

Franco contended that she also respected liberty. In fact, she noted, Liberty is her middle name. However, she said, the Constitution in which the American notion of liberty is enshrined begins with “We the People,” suggesting that the people should be able to make certain decisions collectively.

Furthermore, on the matter of short-term rentals, an issue that Henneke suggested the city of Austin had overreached on, Franco argued that the city must protect not just the liberty of the property owner but the liberty of the neighbor, whose right to live in a quiet neighborhood is being threatened by commercial short-term rentals that attract rowdy parties.

One matter that Henneke believes should be put to vote is annexation. The Legislature will likely consider a bill that would allow cities to annex an area outside of their boundaries only after a vote by the residents of the affected area.

He later added that Austin is overreaching into areas of policy where it should not be involved, referencing positions that the city has taken on immigration enforcement.

Franco and Lavine urged those in attendance to speak out on issues to their federal and state representatives.

Indeed, added Lavine, despite Austin being solidly Democratic, many parts of the city are represented by Republicans as a result of partisan gerrymandering. Therefore, contrary to what many Austinites may believe, he suggested, there are members of the majority party in both Congress and the Legislature who may have a reason to listen to what they think.

Photo by Wing-Chi Poon made available through a Creative Commons license.

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