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Texas Lawmakers Tried To Take The Reins From Cities This Session. The Results Were Mixed.

Gabriel C. Pérez

For the last handful of legislative sessions, the Texas Legislature has had it in for Austin and other cities.

GOP lawmakers who regularly thumb their noses at "big government"-minded efforts in D.C. have filed bills targeting city laws regulating everything from plastic bag usage to how residents preserve trees, arguing city laws in Austin create a so-called patchwork of onerous regulations.

This legislative session was no different, but state lawmakers didn't get everything they wanted.

What Passed

House Bill 1631: Red-Light Cameras

For nearly a decade, Austin has used red-light cameras at intersections across the city. Austin officials have argued, for the past couple sessions, that they serve two important purposes: They force drivers to think twice before running a red light (a public safety argument), and they allow the city to collect money to put toward building out Austin's sidewalks or other pedestrian-minded amenities (a fiscal argument).

Currently, the cameras are at 10 intersections, and the Austin Police Department argues they've reduced crashes at those intersections by 41 percent.

Opponents have argued the cameras violate due process; that a scan of a license plate isn't enough, because a light-running driver may not hold the title to a vehicle and, therefore, could leave that title-holder holding the bag, as it where, when it comes time to pay up.

At a hearing on the bill in March, Democratic state Rep. Terry Canales of Edinburg argued "you can't wrap the world in bubble tape" and that the Austin Police Department shouldn't "profit from policing."

APD Sgt. Michael Barger argued it was a matter of safety and that the cameras save lives.

None of that matters now.

In a bipartisan effort, lawmakers passed a ban on the cameras, with conservative- and libertarian-minded lawmakers saying they are a violation of privacy, and left-leaning lawmakers saying they encourage "policing for profit."

If Gov. Greg Abbott signs the bill, it could be the first legislative victory for bomb-lobbing Bedford state Rep. Jonathan Stickland.

Senate Bill 1978: Save Chick-fil-A

This bill would prohibit cities from ending contracts or refusing to do business with entities that partner with religious groups. It became known as the "save Chick-fil-A" bill after the San Antonio City Council decided to ban the fried chicken chain from its airport because of its support of anti-LGBTQ issues. After that, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton opened up an investigation into the city's actions. 

Opponents argued the bill would also allow employers to discriminate against potential employees or customers on the basis of their status as LGBTQ.

The LGBTQ Caucus in the Texas House successfully killed that body's bill, but a version was stealthily revived in the Texas Senate about a week later – absent language the LGBTQ Caucus argued was discriminatory. The bill ultimately passed the Senate.

In the House, LGBTQ Caucus members spoke out against SB 1978 before its final passage.

"This bill is gonna pass. Let’s face it," Austin state Rep. Celia Israel said. "It’s been cloaked in religious freedom, but the genesis and the nexus of this bill is in hatred."

On the eve of the bill's preliminary passage, Abbott tweeted out his intention to sign it.

Senate Bill 22: Contracts With Abortion Providers

Texas lawmakers hinted at banning cities and counties from partnering with Planned Parenthood in the 2017 legislative session's special session, but ultimately lawmakers ran out of time before acting on it.

This year, New Braunfels Republican state Sen. Donna Campbell filed the bill to ban those contracts. In her arguments to fellow lawmakers, she railed, specifically, against Austin's deal with Planned Parenthood to run a women's health clinic on 7th Street in East Austin. Campbell called the arrangement a "sweetheart deal," because the city charges only $1 in rent annually to Planned Parenthood to operate the facility. The clinic performs STI tests and other women's health examinations but, because of federal law, cannot perform abortions while receiving taxpayer money.

Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden testified against the bill in committee, saying the clinic fills a critical health care gap in East Austin.

"The City of Austin has a sexually transmitted infection clinic, and by noon, most days, our clinic is full," she said. "So if we were to try to absorb 5,000 people [from the Planned Parenthood clinic], that would be extremely difficult."

The bill passed, and Abbott has previously expressed support for similar legislation; he made it an emergency item in the 2017 special session.

While the bill bans future partnerships between cities and Planned Parenthood, it doesn't ban current partnerships, according to Austin Mayor Steve Adler's reading of it.

Adler told KUT's Jennifer Stayton this week that the clinic has a long-term contract with the city that preempts the legislation.


What Didn't Pass

House Bill 3778: Short-Term Rentals

For the better part of a decade, Texas lawmakers have tried and failed to pass uniform rules for short-term rentals on sites like Airbnb and HomeAway.

So far, no dice.

Richardson Republican state Rep. Angie Chen Button carried bills in the House this session that would've created statewide rules for the rentals. Button and other proponents argue legislation would make a uniform framework and do away with "arbitrary" bans on certain types of rental properties – a dig at city rules in Austin and San Antonio.

RELATED | Here Are 3 Ways State Lawmakers Could Disrupt (Or Shore-Up) Short-Term Rentals In Texas This Session

Those rules ban properties that aren't occupied by an owner from being rented on those platforms, but they do it in different ways. Austin banned the properties in 2015, with the goal of phasing them out entirely in 2022. San Antonio rules allow non-owner-occupied properties, but placed a proportional cap on how many can operate in areas zoned as residential – no more than one on a 10-home city block.

The bill would've prohibited cities from banning any type of property from renting on the services. Opponents argued that would have allowed for party houses to flourish and tied cities' hands in regulating noise and nuisance complaints.

The bill got backing from an industry group and was seemingly well positioned to pass this session, but it ultimately didn't make it out of committee.

Senate Bill 29: Lobbying

The bill from Edgewood Republican state Sen. Bob Hall would've banned all cities, counties, school districts and any other governmental entity from lobbying state lawmakers.

Hall argued rural communities in Texas weren't getting the representation at the Capitol that larger, more monied cities and counties were, because they simply couldn't afford it.

"Taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for lobbying that advocates against their interests, such as cities lobbying against bills that could lead to lower taxes," Hall argued in a committee hearing.

The bill unceremoniously failed in the House.

Senate Bill 15 (and Senate Bill 2485): Paid Sick Leave

Conroe Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton filed Senate Bill 15 in the hopes of undoing Austin's paid sick leave ordinance. Passed early last year, the city ordinance requiring private employers to give employees paid sick leave was the target of a lawsuit before it even went into effect.

Creighton's bill sought to prohibit cities from requiring paid sick leave. It also contained language, however, that would've banned nondiscrimination ordinances put in place by cities. LGBTQ advocates decried the bill, and Creighton stripped out that language and tried again – but it failed to pass the House.

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.
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