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Austin legislators fought hard for city, Franco reports

Thursday, June 10, 2021 by Jo Clifton

It was no surprise to City Council Tuesday when Brie Franco, Austin’s intergovernmental relations officer, described the recently concluded 2021 session of the Texas Legislature as “one of the most difficult sessions I’ve actually worked on in my over 20 years of doing this.”

Franco praised the Travis County delegation’s efforts in gaining passage of legislation helpful to the city and in fighting bills that would have had a negative impact on Austin. In particular, Franco thanked Reps. Eddie Rodriguez, Donna Howard, Vikki Goodwin and Celia Israel as well as Sen. Judith Zaffirini. She said Reps. Gina Hinojosa, Sheryl Cole and Erin Zwiener also fought for the city’s interests.

Among the bills that would have hurt Austin that failed to make it to the finish line were three allowing various parts of the city to de-annex, meaning the city would no longer be able to collect property tax from those residents. Howard and Goodwin, in particular, raised points of order that effectively killed the de-annexation bills, Franco said. She also pointed out that Austin’s representatives faced repercussions to their own legislation after killing the de-annexation bills.

Franco named 20 pieces of legislation considered “detrimental to Austin” that failed. Those bills would have preempted city regulations, imposed new development deadlines and changed rates at Austin Energy, among other things. Among them was House Bill 3813, a noise ordinance preemption bill that specifically targeted Austin. The bill would have prevented the city from enforcing an ordinance regulating amplified sound up to 85 decibels at a bar or other music venue between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 a.m. anywhere in the city.

Council Member Kathie Tovo said the noise bill “was an effort from some of our local businesses … to advocate for and then try to pass a bill that would have really diminished quality of life for residents throughout the entire city. And I think we need to put some transparency behind those in our community who are out advocating against Austinites’ interests.” Acknowledging that the city’s lobbying team needs some time off, Tovo said she wants a report on which representatives voted in favor of restricting Austin’s authority to regulate noise and which businesses might have been involved.

Perhaps the most positive news from the bills that passed was the adoption of HB 4368, reforming the Austin Police Retirement System, which Rodriguez filed and shepherded through the Legislature. According to a statement from the retirement system website, the bill will “address the underfunded status of the system and better ensure the long-term sustainability of its trust fund for the protection of APRS members and beneficiaries that rely on their retirement income.”

Beginning next January, officers’ contributions will increase from 13 percent to 15 percent of their pay, and city contributions will increase over a period of three years. Those officers already in the system are eligible to retire at any age after 23 years of service. New officers will be required to put in 25 years of service and retire no earlier than the age of 50.

Gov. Greg Abbott can call a special session at any time and is expected to call such a session this summer to try to pass legislation related to voting. Franco pointed out that a member can file legislation regardless of whether the governor has put that issue on his call. The Legislature will need to hold a special session on redistricting and use of federal Covid relief funds, which is likely to be in September and/or October. Census data for redistricting purposes is expected on or after Aug. 16.

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