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.


MOST RECENT

A map of the Bella Fortuna PID
Travis County holds off on making development funds available for South Austin Bella Fortuna PID through payments from future homeowners

Travis County commissioners cited concern that funds would not be used to adequately buy down the cost of homes, making them affordable.

Austin City Hall (Christopher Neely/Community impact Newspaper)
Some on Austin City Council want more of its $272 million coronavirus relief package to go to residents in need

City Council will determine how much to put toward direct financial assistance at its June 4 meeting.

South Austin-based Art + Academy will hold online camps this summer. (Courtesy  Art + Academy)
South Austin children can participate in these online camps this summer

The following Austin-area businesses are offering online or virtual camp programs this summer.

Candidates in the Senate District 14 special election responded to Community Impact Newspaper's questions about their campaigns to fill the vacant seat in the Texas Senate. (Design by Shelby Savage/Community Impact Newspaper)
Q&A: Senate District 14 candidates discuss the issues ahead of July 14 election

There are six candidates running in the special election to fill the seat of former Sen. Kirk Watson through 2022.

Travis County judge pushes back against attorney general's reprimand of stay-at-home order

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe responded to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's warning that county coronavirus orders conflicted with the state's.

Volunteers load cars at a distribution event in South Austin on May 28. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Six food distribution events scheduled by Central Texas Food Bank in June

Residents who face food insecurities can drive up with their vehicles for no-contact pickup.

Cap Metro and its community partners have combined to delivery more than 300,000 meals to community members in need. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Capital Metro, community partners deliver more than 300K meals to community

The public transportation agency is teaming up with businesses and nonprofits to provide meals for those in need.

The Austin Central Library will reopen after it was closed for more than two months to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (John Cox/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin libraries, in-person pet adoptions to begin reopening June 1

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department will begin opening amenities, but there is no date set to open Barton Springs Pool.

(Courtesy Fotolia)
New school schedules and a road opening: Latest news from Central Texas

Read the latest news from Community Impact Newspaper's coverage of the Central Texas area.

A photo of the Travis County headquarters sign
Austin Public Health officials say they plan to increase support to Latino community, where coronavirus hospitalizations are up

As of May 26, 76 Hispanic individuals in Travis County were hospitalized with COVID-19, representing around 78% of all hospitalizations.

Here are the latest coronavirus updates for Travis County. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)
92nd coronavirus death reported in Travis County

Active hospitalizations in the metropolitan area dropped from 97 to 88 over the past 24 hours.

The Central Texas Food Bank hosted a food distribution event in South Austin May 28. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Central Texas Food Bank serves 1,071 families at South Austin distribution event

The food bank created the emergency drive-up events to reach more individuals during the coronavirus pandemic.