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City watching bills that would cut its authority

Tuesday, January 26, 2021 by Jo Clifton

As has been the case for several sessions, Austin is facing numerous challenges as the Texas Legislature begins to do its business. Due to Covid, this session will present new challenges, not just for city advocates, but for members and anyone who might want to testify before a committee or even watch from the audience.

As Intergovernmental Relations Officer Brie Franco told City Council at Monday’s work session, the city is watching some bills aimed at reducing its authority to lobby on its own behalf and control its own public safety budget. On her list of bills to watch was House Bill 749 by Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville) and Senate Bill 234 by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Rockwall). The bills would restrict use of public money by political subdivisions and would prevent the city from hiring lobbyists or paying nonprofit state associations that primarily represent political subdivisions.

Franco also included information about HB 638, which would require a political subdivision to adopt a public safety budget equal to or greater than the public safety budget of the prior year. She also pointed out HB 741, which if approved would require voter approval of a city or county’s attempt to decrease the budget allocation for public safety compared to the previous year.

Gov. Greg Abbott has not given his State of the State address yet, but is expected to endorse bills to limit or eliminate Austin’s authority over its own police department budget.

At least one bill is aimed at undermining the authority of Austin Energy to set its own rates, and another bill would slap a 12 percent tax on every power generation company in the state except those using natural gas. HB 433 by Rep. Ken King (R-Hemphill), is clearly intended to hamstring renewable energy providers such as wind and solar companies.

Through its generation resource objectives, Austin Energy has committed to making 86 percent of electricity generation carbon-free by the end of 2025 and 93 percent carbon-free by the end of 2030. Texas is moving toward greater and greater use of wind power in particular, with wind generation surpassing coal for production of electricity for the first time in 2020.

Franco also provided information on HB 905 by Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), which is aimed at preventing cities and counties from declaring a state of disaster that restricts or prohibits regular business operations. Under this bill, the presiding officer making the declaration would lose his or her regular compensation while the prohibitions are in effect, except in case of an order to evacuate.

In years past, legislative committees have allowed witnesses who signed up and waited their turn to testify. While that may still be the case, anyone who wishes to testify before a House committee will have to do so in person, with the exception of witnesses invited to testify by the committee chair. Rules for preventing the spread of Covid-19 are considerably looser in the House than in the Senate. In the Senate, members are required to test negative before entering or attending a committee hearing. However, the House does not mandate Covid testing, Franco explained.

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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