Senate committee hears testimony on ride-hailing, bag ban and short-term rental regulations

The Senate Committee on Business and Commerce heard testimony Tuesday on a bill that would eliminate cities' abilities to create or enforce bag bans.

The Senate Committee on Business and Commerce heard testimony Tuesday on a bill that would eliminate cities' abilities to create or enforce bag bans.

Senators heard public testimony Tuesday on several legislative bills aimed at overturning municipal plastic bag bans, ride-hailing regulations and short-term rental regulations.

Dozens of speakers testified during the Senate Business and Commerce Committee in favor of and against the three issues that would, if passed, take away power from local governments in favor of statewide laws.

Local plastic bag bans

The bill, filed by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Rockwall, says any business that sells an item to a customer can provide or sell a bag made from any material, and no city can enforce or create an ordinance that would stop a business from providing or selling bags to a customer.

Hall said it "returns the freedom of choice back to the businesses and the people of Texas."

Public testimony Tuesday included an appearance by Jeff Seinsheimer, the vice chairman of the Surfrider Foundation's Galveston chapter, a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to protecting and saving beaches and oceans. wore a suit made of plastic bags and opposed the bill.

Seinsheimer wore a suit made of plastic bags to show his opposition to the bill.

"We need to get a handle on our addiction of plastic bags," he said, calling plastic bags the "modern-day tumbleweed."

Others, such as Heather Lockhart, assistant general counsel for the city advocacy nonprofit Texas Municipal League, opposed the bill on the grounds that it restricts the voice of citizens and local governments.

Locally, the city of Austin has committed to reducing the amount of waste it sends to landfills by 90 percent by 2040.

The city's plastic bag ban went into effect in 2013, affecting about 17,500 businesses, according to Austin Resource Recovery.

Other Texas cities with plastic bag bans include Brownsville, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Stockton, Houston, Sunset Valley and Laredo.

In December, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton requested a review of plastic bag bans throughout the state, particularly in Laredo and Austin. The 4th Court of Appeals in August struck down a law in a ruling that found Laredo's ban violates a state law regulating solid waste disposal.

Hall argued in his introduction of the bill that plastic bags are less environmentally harmful than bags made from other materials, including paper.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, plastic bags are typically made out of petroleum-based plastic and do not biodegrade when they are disposed of or escape into the environment, nor are they easily recyclable. The EPA said when plastic bags are disposed of on land they may be blown into creeks, lakes, or oceans where they can entangle marine life or animals may mistakenly eat the plastic bags.

Statewide ride-hailing regulations

A trio of bills related to preventing local governments from passing and enforcing ride-hailing ordinances and deregulating ride-hailing brought more than an hour of testimony to the Senate committee.

A pair of bills filed by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, call for ride-hailing drivers to have insurance and undergo criminal background checks, not including fingerprint-based verification.

“I think it’s got a pretty high probability of passing,” Nichols told Community Impact Newspaper in January. “I don’t know if I would want to throw out a percentage, but I’m optimistic that either mine, a modification of mine or somebody else’s will pass.”

In May, a ballot proposition that proposed looser regulations for ride-hailing companies with voluntary fingerprinting was defeated by Austin voters. Ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft followed through on their promise to voluntarily stop operations in the city because the stricter regulations remained in place.

Ann Kitchen, the District 5 Austin City Council member who heads the city mobility committee and spearheaded the move to make fingerprinting mandatory, testified Tuesday that the city of Austin stood by the voters' choice to mandate ride-hailing drivers be fingerprinted.

“City and state legislators have a responsibility to protect the public," Kitchen said. "With ground transportation—like [transportation network companies], taxis, limos and other rides for hire—that means ensuring public safety by ensuring that the vehicle is safe, the driver is safe, the consumer is safe and the traffic rules are followed.”

Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, asked Kitchen why there was an "outcry" about the "confusing" and "deceiving" ballot language following the vote.

"That was not our experience as a council," Kitchen said. "We chose language that was straightforward."

District 8 Council Member Ellen Troxclair spoke in support of the bills, saying the city faced economic consequences when Uber and Lyft left Austin following last May's vote. She voted against making fingerprinting mandatory in May.

At a recent South by Southwest Conferences & Festivals panel, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said it was unfortunate that Uber and Lyft left after Austinites voted for mandatory fingerprinting, but he said the voters' choice should be respected.

Representatives from both Uber and Lyft testified in support of the bills. Both companies have expressed interest in coming back to Austin should the fingerprinting mandate be removed.

Since the local fingerprinting law went into effect, seven ride-hailing companies have met the fingerprinting requirements in Austin, including Fare, Fasten and RideAustin.

Both RideAustin and Fasten experienced blackouts last weekend during the first Saturday of SXSW.

“We were sporadic from 7:15 p.m. to midnight due to a previously undiscovered database issue that did not emerge during our scale testing. We believe it's fully solved and will not occur again,” RideAustin said in a Facebook post at around 1:15 a.m. Sunday.

Fasten Chief Financial Officer David Piperno spoke against the bills, calling for an amendment that would include a mandatory fingerprint background check.

Banning municipal short-term rental ordinances

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, filed a bill that stops municipalities from making or enforcing laws that prohibit short-term rentals, or STRs.

Currently, cities such as Austin, San Antonio and Fort Worth have restrictions on STRs.

In February 2016, the Austin City Council passed a restrictive ordinance on STRs. The ordinance places limitations on the operation of Type 2 STRs, which are single-family homes that are rented without the property owner on-site. Also, the new ordinance discontinues Type 2 short-term rentals in residential areas on April 1, 2022.

Last year the Texas Public Policy Foundation sued the city of Austin, claiming its STR ordinance was overly restrictive and violated state and federal constitutional rights. The ordinance restricts the number of people allowed to congregate inside a residence and how many people are allowed outside after a certain hour.

Critics of the bill said STRs limit cities' flexibility and deflate the property values of houses around STRs. They call STRs commercial businesses—similar to hotels and motels—that do not belong in neighborhoods.

Adler said he opposed "investor facilities," or STRs not occupied by their owners. Some public testifiers said Tuesday they owned three or more STRs in their neighborhoods.

Proponents of the bill say it protects property rights and levels the playing field for other competitors.

The committee will vote on whether to move the bills forward to the full Senate at a later date.

Additional reporting by JJ Velasquez
By Marie Albiges
Marie Albiges was the editor for the San Marcos, Buda and Kyle edition of Community Impact Newspaper. She covered San Marcos City Council, San Marcos CISD and Hays County Commissioners Court. Marie previously reported for the Central Austin edition. Marie moved to Austin from Williamsburg, Va. in 2016 and was born in France. She has since moved on from Community Impact in May 2018.


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