A lot of bills targeted Austin this legislative session. Here's what passed and what failed.
Every legislative session, lawmakers file a slew of bills targeting Austin’s policies on everything from tree trimming to budgeting. This year was no different, but the lion’s share of those bills failed ahead of the end of the Legislature on Monday.
While lawmakers immediately gaveled back in for a special session, it's not likely Austin-centric issues will crop up. The governor is asking lawmakers to prioritize bills on property taxes and border security.
Here's a rundown of which Austin-focused bills passed and which failed during the 88th regular session.
Trees for thee but not for me
Ashe juniper trees are native to the Hill Country. They are also, one could argue, the worst.
Commonly referred to as a cedar, the tree emanates pollen that wreak havoc on those of us with allergies. The trees also contributed greatly to the city's massive power outages in February. The trees don't shed their leaves, which allowed freezing rain to pile up on the limbs and collapse onto power lines. But Austin has long strived to preserve its urban tree canopy, enshrining certain protections in city law. The trees also serve as a natural habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.
Austin currently restricts cutting down the trees, even on private property. Gov. Greg Abbott has previously singled out Austin's rules.
A bill from Republican state Rep. Ellen Troxclair, a former Austin City Council member, would’ve banned any city from attempting to preserve Ashe juniper trees. It passed the House but couldn't get out of the Senate.
A handful of bills would've broken up Austin Energy and taken away the city’s ability to oversee it. The measures were part of a persistent resistance to the publicly owned utility. For years, opponents have wanted to open up Austin to the state's retail electricity market. This year, Troxclair led the charge to target Austin Energy in the Texas House.
The bills would've halted the utility's payments into the City of Austin budget. Austin Energy is a huge moneymaker for the city. Profits from it account for more than $100 million of the city's general fund. Under Troxclair's plan, that money would go back to the utility.
Another bill from Troxclair would've barred the Austin City Council from governing the utility, instead opting for a system more akin to that of private electric companies. Another would've broken up the utility altogether.
They all failed.
Watching the watchmen
One bill that was intently watched by City Hall staffers would've completely negated Austin’s recent election on police oversight, Proposition A.
The bill from Tarrant County Republican state Sen. Kelly Hancock would've barred citizens from investigating police misconduct — specifically, their ability to view personnel files for first responders. That's a key provision in the city's plan for a revamped Office of Police Oversight. Austin voters roundly approved that measure in the form of Prop A earlier this month.
The bill passed out of a House committee but failed to pass ahead of Monday's deadline.
Another bill that's germane to the Austin Police Department would have established protections for officers accused of misconduct while using so-called less lethal ammunition. That ammunition consists of lead-pellet-filled bags fired from shotguns or foam shells fired from 40 mm launchers. The bill from North Texas Republican state Sen. Drew Springer would've given officers what's called an affirmative defense for using the weapons, essentially protecting them from prosecution.
Scores of Austin police officers were indicted for assault in 2021 for using the weapons against people protesting in the wake of police killings of George Floyd and Mike Ramos. The bill would've applied retroactively to those cases, but it failed to make it out of the House.
(Dis)connect the dots
Another bill would’ve made Austin vote — again — on Project Connect, the multibillion-dollar light-rail plan. That bill also failed just before lawmakers adjourned for the regular session — but not before a whole mess of palace intrigue.
The House measure, also from Troxclair, aimed to stop the city from issuing bonds to pay for Project Connect, unless Austin voters approve it. Facing the bill's likely passage, Austin Mayor Kirk Watson effectively bit the bullet on it, leaning into the prospect of another Project Connect vote.
Then, after some Senate amendments, it was killed at the last minute by state Rep. John Bucy. He argued Friday that the Senate amendments in the bill "would have killed Project Connect as we know it." He raised a point-of-order, killing the bill. Now, Watson says the project's supporters can rest easy, while still remaining "vigilant."
Last session, lawmakers successfully passed a statewide ban on camping in public. That was largely a response to a former city policy that decriminalized sleeping in public — one that was later overturned by voters.
This session, Republican state Sen. Pete Flores sought to punish cities for not enforcing that statewide ban. His bill would've clawed back sales tax revenue from cities that don't effectively ticket people sleeping outside. After a written complaint, the city would be investigated by the Office of the Attorney General and then, potentially, the state comptroller could withhold tax revenue from the city, according to the measure.
The bill had enough steam to pass the Senate but died in the House.
Remember CodeNEXT? The city's attempt to rewrite its land-use rules that went "horribly wrong?"
Well, a bill from state Sen. Bryan Hughes would've done away with height restrictions statewide for buildings in neighborhoods. That was a crucial sticking point in the CodeNEXT debacle. Housing advocates argued for more density. Opponents say taller buildings crowd out neighborhoods.
Hughes' proposal would've loosened restrictions on how tall buildings near single-family homes can be, namely in Austin.
The hardline Republican's bill garnered support from unlikely bedfellows like the progressive-leaning nonprofit Texas Housers and appeared poised to pass the House.
Alas, it failed to get to the floor for a vote ahead of the deadline.
'That's no moon'
State Sen. Brandon Creighton's bill to preempt a slew of local laws and ordinances was dubbed the Death Star — the moon-sized technological terrors of Star Wars fame. Not exactly a great comparison from a PR standpoint, but Creighton force-jumped head on into the comparison ahead of the bill's passage in the Senate.
Put simply, the bill, which Abbott signed, requires local laws on things like eviction protections, rest breaks for construction workers, water restrictions, payday lending and a lot more to adhere to what's on the books in Texas. If they're not in line with nine codes outlined in the state constitution — Agriculture, Business and Commerce, Finance, Insurance, Labor, Local Government, Natural Resources, Occupations and Property — a city or county could get sued.
Opponents argued the near-planetary breadth of this bill, like its namesake, could have a lot of unforeseen implications and would likely lead to frivolous lawsuits and eviscerate local control — à la Alderaan. Supporters say it makes the rules more uniform for employers.
Following the governor's signature, the bill goes into effect Sept. 1.
Yep. Two Star Wars references in two subheds. Big day.
A bill that would allow anyone in a city to file a lawsuit against a prosecutor for not enforcing certain crimes — dubbed "rogue prosecutors" in many a GOP campaign fundraising email — is now on the governor's desk.
The bill targets liberal-leaning prosecutors who aren’t going after certain crimes. Think: Austin’s policies on low-level pot offenses. Both District Attorney José Garza and County Attorney Delia Garza ran on platforms to stop prosecuting many of those cases.
That drew ire from GOP lawmakers in Austin. If this bill were to become law, someone could sue a county or district attorney to remove them from office.
Supporters say prosecutors should follow the letter of the law. Opponents say it’s a veiled attack on prosecutors' discretion and that there are already measures to get rid of elected prosecutors. Namely, at the ballot box.
The bill passed over the weekend and was sent to Abbott’s desk Tuesday.
Central Texas is growing at an insane clip and has been for a decade. But a bill signed by Abbott this month could slow that growth, or at least mire it in red tape.
The bill allows anyone in a city's extra-territorial jurisdiction — areas surrounding a city's limits that could be annexed in the future — to petition to get rid of the ETJ designation. Often an ETJ receives some city services but don't have, say, the ability to vote in a city election. ETJ residents may be taxed or even regulated by a city in some cases. If more than 50% of voters in an ETJ sign a petition, then it goes to a vote.
Basically, the bill complicates a city's ability to grow and jeopardizes future tax revenue, if folks in the orbit of growing cities decide to opt out of an ETJ.