Wednesday, April 5, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Troxclair’s legislative speeches criticized

During a legislative briefing at Tuesday’s City Council work session, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo criticized Council Member Ellen Troxclair for testifying against the city’s position on three hot topics at the Texas Legislature.

“I need to express my grave disappointment that a member of this body would go to the Legislature and ask that specific provisions and policies that this Council adopted be overturned,” Tovo said.

Troxclair, the only Republican on the dais, testified in favor of a revenue cap bill that would prevent cities from raising the taxes from one year to the next by more than 4 percent. That bill, Senate Bill 2, was amended to put the cap at 5 percent and was approved by the Senate. It has been referred to the House Ways & Means Committee.

Opposition to SB 2 has been a high priority for the city of Austin as well as other cities and the Texas Municipal League. Mayor Steve Adler testified against the bill.

Troxclair also testified in favor of legislation that would overturn city regulations on transportation network companies and short-term rentals. Council Member Ann Kitchen, who was targeted for recall in 2016 by a murky group of opponents, spoke against the legislation. She was instrumental in crafting city regulations requiring that drivers of TNCs be fingerprinted.

Tovo said that although she has been on the losing end of some votes, she has continued to work with her colleagues to come up with solutions more satisfactory to her.

“We all have freedom of speech; we all have the opportunity to go down (to) the Capitol and have that conversation with our elected leaders, and I understand that. But I would hope that, as a diverse body, we pass policies, and once we pass them with a majority vote, they are the policy of this City Council. And we are elected by the people of Austin to make decisions for the people of Austin, and we know their needs and the issues of our own community, and that’s one of the reasons I believe so strongly in local control,” she said.

Kitchen, Adler and Council Member Leslie Pool also expressed disappointment with Troxclair’s decisions.

Troxclair seemed surprised but responded, “I try to remain respectful in my dissent, not only within City Hall but also when I discuss these issues to my district. … Any time I have felt compelled to go to the Capitol to speak on these issues, I have done so on behalf of myself, and I have made it very clear that I am not there representing the city, (that) in fact the city has often adopted a policy contrary to my specific belief. … I appreciate (it being pointed) out that I don’t give up my ability as a citizen of the state and this country to speak out on any issue that I deem fit. As I respect all of your abilities to do as well.”

She also pointed out that even though every Council member was elected to represent the city, each district elected a Council member, and the constituents of her district do not necessarily agree with the opinions of the majority of Austinites.

Troxclair, who represents District 8, later told the Austin Monitor that her district had voted in favor of the ordinance sponsored by Uber and Lyft and that she believes that her constituents would support restrictions on the growth of city tax rates.

These exchanges occurred as a strident note in a conversation between Council and Intergovernmental Relations Officer Brie Franco about what’s happening at the Legislature.

Franco noted that the number of bills introduced continues to climb each session, as do the number of bills related to what cities may and may not do.

Austin Republican Rep. Paul Workman has introduced several bills considered detrimental to Austin Energy. House Bill 1460, for example, is essentially a deregulation bill, similar to one introduced by state Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) during the 2015 session, Franco said. “The bill basically undoes what you all did on the rate case,” said Franco. The bill is scheduled for a hearing today, April 5, in the House State Affairs Committee.

Franco said both Adler and Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent would be testifying against the bill. The committee will meet upon adjournment of the House, but the exact time is not known.

Workman has also introduced HB 1459, which would cap the amount of money that Austin Energy could transfer to the city’s General Fund as a dividend. Jamie Mitchell of Austin Energy explained that the bill would set in statute the current cap on the transfer from Austin Energy and would also limit how the utility uses its money. For example, Austin Energy helps the community through various sponsorships, which would not be allowed. Also, Austin Energy uses the city’s Fleet Services Department rather than having its own separate department. “It would make it very complicated,” Mitchell said.

Adler said he would tell the committee that Austin had done exactly what he promised two years ago, sponsoring an open and transparent rate case that lowered electric bills for most customers.

Franco noted that there are two bills that would limit the city’s ability to annex scheduled for hearings in the House Land and Resource Management Committee today. HB 299 by Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) would prohibit limited purpose annexation and require the city to negotiate with property owners if they wish to annex.

HB 424 by state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) would require voter approval prior to annexation. That committee will meet either at 2 p.m. or on final adjournment of the House.

Franco said there is also a threat to the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan in the form of another piece of Workman legislation, HB 4304. That bill only applies to Travis County and would require that the city remove parkland from the plan. That would mean that the city and Travis County would have to acquire more habitat land – but the bill would also prevent acquisition of additional land after 20 years from the date the federal permit was issued in 1996.

Austin Water Assistant Director Daryl Slusher told Council the utility would be testifying today in opposition to HB 2959 by state Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs). The bill would require Austin to provide water and wastewater utilities service to Hays if the small city requests it. Slusher said the area is outside of Austin Water’s service area.

Isaac filed similar legislation during the last session. The bill is scheduled to be heard at the House Natural Resources Committee.

For supporters of preserving the historic Lions Municipal Golf Course, there was good news. The Senate Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee approved SB 822 by state Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls). The golf course currently belongs to the University of Texas, but the city has leased it until 2019. Lions was the first integrated golf course in the South, although it is not certain whether that happened in 1950 or 1951. The university has warned Austin that it would not renew the lease after it expires in two years and indicated an intention to develop the tract. Estes’ legislation would take the property away from the university and give it to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to maintain as a golf course.

Photo by Stuart Seeger [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Texas Legislature: The state’s legislative governing body composed of the House and Senate.

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