Wednesday, June 7, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Local leaders slam Abbott’s special session call

The Austin area’s top two elected leaders reacted quickly and harshly to Gov. Greg Abbott’s unusual call for a special session of the 85th Texas Legislature on Tuesday afternoon.

“I admit to being a little dumbfounded when I hear what sounded to me almost like a call for a war against cities and against individual liberty as expressed at the local ballot box,” Mayor Steve Adler said at a hastily organized press conference at City Hall.

In a statement released just before the start of that conference, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said the session will be “another round of political game-playing at the Capitol.

“Despite the fact that this is a notably safe, prosperous and fiscally sound community, the leaders of state government appear determined to create a crisis that will make it harder for us to meet the needs of our residents and our workforce,” Eckhardt, who had just begun her summer vacation, said in the statement. “While we are saddened, we are not surprised, and we will continue to take steps to ensure that the will and the values of Travis County residents are respected and the needs of our community are met.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Abbott told a gathering of the press that he wants lawmakers to return to Austin on July 18 to consider up to 20 separate mandates, several of which would preempt existing Austin city ordinances. Ostensibly, Abbott said his primary motivation for the special session is to pass legislation that will prevent several state agencies from sunsetting.

“But,” Abbott added, “if I’m going to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for a special session, I intend to make it count.”

He said that if both the state House and Senate can pass the sunset bill within three days, he will add a whopping 19 other items to their to-do list. In addition to a proposal that would introduce restrictions on public school restrooms for transgender students, the items include actions that would abrogate city rules regarding heritage trees, annexation and permitting processes. Calling out Austin by name, Abbott said that Texas cities have engaged in over-regulation.

“They are stifling our economy, interfering with job growth and undermining private property rights,” Abbott said.

At his own press conference, Adler slapped down that assessment and noted that Austin’s economy continues to boom not in spite of its local ordinances, but rather because of the shared values they express. He accused Abbott of turning to the past.

“A past in which we have the government police private decisions, a past in which innovation happens slowly enough for the legislature to check in and micromanage it once every two years,” Adler elaborated.

Council members Jimmy Flannigan, Leslie Pool and Greg Casar joined the mayor at his press conference. Flannigan referenced political rumors that Abbott was bullied into calling the special session by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

“It’s disappointing that (Abbott) is allowing his feud with the lieutenant governor to spill into a waste of taxpayer dollars in this special session,” said Flannigan.

Casar suggested that the raft of mandates represents a weaponized platform designed to neutralize Democratic voters. He pointed to a proposal to block public sector unions from collecting dues from workers’ paychecks, a move that could weaken groups such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Casar also questioned why the governor did not include on his list a call to look at redistricting, despite the legal limbo Texas’ current maps remain in.

Though she didn’t speak at the conference, Pool issued a statement afterward specifically criticizing Abbott for targeting the city’s heritage tree ordinance.

“Governor Abbott must not remember the 2011 drought that killed or weakened millions of trees across Texas. Those trees will take decades and decades to replace,” Pool said. “It is my hope that cities in Texas will join forces as they have before to protect and preserve our way of life.”

Photo by Anthony Quintano made available through a Creative Commons license.

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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.

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