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How Many 'Austin Bashing' Bills Made It Out of the Lege? (Update)

Update: The legislative session adjourns Monday – and Austin City Council members can breathe a collective sigh of relief.

All of the bills below disappeared into the legislative black hole – that is, they either never made it out of committee, or were never cleared for a vote.

Update (March 26): Here’s some additional bills that meet the Austin City Council’s definition of “Austin bashing” – legislation that would defang local policies.

  • HB 1858, Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin)

The bill would ban cities from restricting the removal of trees if a developer or land owner deems the tree to be a fire hazard. Opponents worry the bill provides a work-around the city’s Heritage Tree Ordinance, and point to an additional piece of Workman legislation, HB 3087, as creating additional development loopholes for removing trees.

HB 1858 is scheduled to receive a public hearing in the Business & Industry committee today, upon adjournment of the House.   

As the Austin City Council considers repealing their Project Duration Ordinance – following a recent opinion from Attorney General Greg Abbott arguing Austin's ordinance does not match state code – Rep. Workman has filed a bill that would leave them without a choice.

The city’s Project Duration Ordinance gives expiration dates to building permits, but Workman's bill would remove exemptions that make that possible. Moreover, it would hold cities like Austin liable for damages and penalties if they enforced such an ordinance. 

Original Post (March 20): After a few relatively quiet sessions, it looks like "Austin bashing" is back in vogue at the Texas Legislature.

Owing in part to the city’s liberal reputation, conservative legislators at the Texas Capitol (where “local control” is a rallying cry for most matters) single out Austin from time to time for some infraction, real or imagined. One well-known example is the legislative back and forth targeting Austin’s Save Our Springs ordinance.  But in recent years, Austin’s policies have emerged from most legislative policies relatively unscathed.

That was until the 83rd Legislative Session.

At its work session yesterday, the Austin City Council dwelled on the potential legislative deregulation of Austin Energy. While no bill has been filed to break up the city-owned utility’s monopoly, the attention attracted by the council’s recently approved rate increase still has some worried. (A seeming majority of the council feels that if the city acts to install an independent governing board to oversee Austin Energy, that would turn down the heat.)

Amid that discussion, the council came up with a total of five bills that would impact Austin. (And that’s not counting an Attorney General opinion throwing Austin’s rules on grandfathered development into disarray.)

“These are not statewide issues, these are Austin issues,” Martinez said. “And one of these straws is going to break the camel’s back. We are already getting bashed on, in my opinion, because of some of the actions we have taken.”

So what’s causing the most heartburn? Here’s four Austin bashing bills at the Texas Legislature, plus another bill from a council ally that sets new precedent for Austin policy:

  • HB 1335, Rep. Kenneth Sheets  (R-Dallas)

With the city and county signing off on several high-profile state economic incentive deals last year – including Apple, Visa, and HID Global – advocacy groups are agitating for a “wage floor” for construction workers on projects receiving incentives. A measure passed last December by the Travis County Commissioners Court stipulates a minimum of $11 per hour for workers laboring on incentive projects. A similar measure is slated to come before the City Council.

But HB 1335 states a municipality “may not mandate …  the compensation to be paid to workers during the construction of a project” receiving state incentives.

  • HB 1377, Rep. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham)

This measure that would limit a city’s ability to regulate cutting down trees on private property.
If passed, the bill would drastically affect Austin’s heritage tree ordinance, which requires a city review if a tree’s trunk measures more than 4 and a half feet in circumference. The city ordinance also requires developers to pay varying mitigation fees for removing older trees. But Rep. Kolkhorst's bill stipulates that the penalty for taking down a tree “may not exceed $100 per inch of girth of the mature tree removed.”

  • HB 2416, Rep. Drew Springer (R- Muenster)

The so-called “Shopping Bag Freedom Act” would kill Austin’s new disposable bag ban.

Springer said “nanny-state” policy allows government to intervene in a free market transaction. Springer also cited potential safety hazards like E-Coli, and even excess water usage from washing the bags as additional concerns.

  • HB 14, Rep. Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie)

Right now, the Austin City Council can engage in bond spending without taking them to the polls every election. It’s done by issuing Certificates of Obligation, which are primarily used to cover capital funding (one-time construction costs). 
HB 14 would regulate a city’s bond issuing power, and allow voters to overturn a CO bond issuance through a petition gathering five percent of the population that voted in the last gubernatorial election. It would also prohibit CO spending on proposals that were put to voters as General Obligation bonds in the last three years and failed – meaning in HB 14 passes, the council could not build an affordable housing project with CO bonds, since Austin voters rejected an affordable housing bond in November 2012.

Neither bill necessarily bashes Austin, but they do wrest away an aspect of local control.
In November, the City of Austin annexed over 1,000 acres in Travis County, including the Formula 1-hosting Circuit of the Americas racetrack. The bills from Rep. Rodriguez – who has partnered with the council in the past – would capture some of the new tax dollars Austin receives from the annexation, and redirect it to funding a firefighting service district in the area.

“I don’t view this as an instance of Austin bashing at all,” Council Member Mike Martinez tells KUT News. “But I think it does create some cautions as it related to annexations for any municipal government going forward. … It does create some concern, because it is somewhat unprecedented.”

The Texas Legislature adjourns May 27. (And we’re sure the council is counting down the days.)

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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