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Mayor, City Council express opposition to state legislation

Wednesday, April 7, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Mayor Steve Adler and several City Council members expressed their frustration with the Legislature at Tuesday’s work session, after Intergovernmental Relations Officer Brie Franco described legislation aimed at curbing Austin’s authority to govern itself.

Among Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s announced legislative priorities are bills to prohibit Austin and other cities and counties from hiring lobbyists or paying a nonprofit organization that primarily represents political subdivisions.

One of these bills, House Bill 749, by Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, was heard in the House State Affairs Committee on March 25 and left pending. The second such bill, Senate Bill 10 by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Rockwall, was scheduled for a hearing in the Local Government Committee on Tuesday. Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, chair of the committee, is one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

Austin isn’t the only entity concerned about the impact of this legislation. In one version of the anti-lobbying legislation, Franco said every entity, including public school districts and Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, would be prohibited from lobbying, although charter schools would be allowed to do so.

Council Member Alison Alter asked if she understood correctly that “all of the organizations that are in a position to give campaign donations would be able to lobby, but those of us who are elected and represent and store taxpayer dollars would not be able to lobby?” Franco confirmed that Alter was correct.

Among the bills drawing the most negative comments from Council members are those that would allow three wealthy west-side neighborhoods to disannex from the city and stop paying city property taxes. HB 1653 by Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, was scheduled for hearing on Tuesday and would allow Lake Austin neighborhood properties to petition the city to disannex themselves. The city would be required to disannex the properties within 30 days of receiving the petition. Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, sponsored a similar bill, which was left pending in committee on March 29.

In response to a question from Council Member Pio Renteria about how likely these bills are to pass, Franco said, “The people in these communities definitely have strong connections to the Capitol. Lake Austin, for instance, is being carried by former speaker Craddick, and he … is a very powerful member of the Legislature. So, unfortunately they do have some strength behind them.”

Buckingham also sponsored SB 1499, which mandates that the city disannex the Lost Creek subdivision. HB 3827 by Rep. Terry Wilson, R-Marble Falls, is a companion piece that was scheduled for hearing on Tuesday. Franco noted that unlike the other disannexation bills, this bill does not have any threshold, petition or voting requirements to trigger disannexation.

Renteria was so angered by what he heard that he suggested not spending any more money on these areas while the bills are pending. “We’re investing a lot of our money in roads and bridge improvements on (Loop) 360. If they don’t want to be part of Austin then we should take steps to make sure we’re not damaged by anything that might happen,” he concluded.

Adler told his colleagues, “Austin is only 4 percent of the population in Texas, but we are able to bring a third of the patents and half the venture capital. The state enjoys a diversified portfolio of cities and they’re all different. When Austin’s able to draw large companies like Tesla or Apple or others, the Army Futures Command – those things happen in part because Austin is unique. And if they don’t come to Austin it’s not like they go to Houston or to Dallas. They go somewhere out of state. Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, El Paso – all wonderful cities, but all very different and in that difference there is a real strength when it comes to our state. And in trying to force those differences to disappear, or to hamstring cities like Austin,” it “ultimately hurts the state.”

Other proposed legislation would prevent Austin – though not other cities – from regulating amplified sound for live music venues and bars in residential neighborhoods. HB 3813 by Rep. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, is one such bill. However, Franco said several live music venues testified that they did not agree with the legislation and the committee decided to eliminate them from the bill. The bill was left pending in committee.

Adler put out two statements Tuesday responding to legislative efforts that he and other Democrats believe would harm Austin residents.

In one of those statements, the mayor addressed SB 7 and HB 6, by Sen. Bryan Hughes of Tyler and Rep. Briscoe Cain of Deer Park, both Republicans. The legislation would, among other things, limit extended early voting hours, prohibit drive-thru voting and make it illegal for local election officials to proactively send voters applications to vote by mail.

Adler said, “Restricting access to voting is wrong. Voting and participating in local, state, and federal elections is the fundamental right of every American eligible to vote. Limiting our ability to increase voter participation and ballot access is undemocratic and yet another unwelcome intrusion into local affairs.”

“HB 6 and SB 7 are another effort by Gov. Abbott and state lawmakers to preempt cities and counties’ ability to decide what is best for their community when it comes to elections and access to them. State lawmakers should be celebrating and learning from cities that increase voter turnout, rather than threatening them and trying to change them.”

In addition to the legislation related to voting rights and the city’s right to lobby, some legislators are looking at ways to limit the power of the governor during a pandemic and to prevent local authorities from enacting regulations they believe are necessary. In a news release, Adler said, “During the pandemic it was Texas cities and counties who implemented guidelines and policies which actually saved lives. The state leadership of Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick, AG Paxton has been supportive of lawsuits and legislative efforts aimed at stripping away these types of tools, which has been so vital to the recovery and successes we have experienced in Austin.

“The problem is that state leadership has decided Texas politics is more powerful and important than Texas people. They want to restrict voters’ access to the ballot box, restrict a woman’s reproductive rights, restrict successful local decision making which benefits local communities, and hide residents experiencing homelessness instead of housing them. This simply a recipe for disaster.

“It is our hope state lawmakers will leave these vital tools intact to work through some of disparities that exist between different sections of Austin and we will continue to fight for issues like ending the digital divide and for providing greater access to housing, health care, voting, and vaccines for all Austin residents,” he concluded.

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