Analysis: Do these 8 bills undermine local control or save individual liberty?

Several bills from the recently concluded Texas legislative session aimed to preempt local control, including the sanctuary cities, bathroom bill and ride-hailing legislation. n

Several bills from the recently concluded Texas legislative session aimed to preempt local control, including the sanctuary cities, bathroom bill and ride-hailing legislation. n

By the time the sun set on the 140th and final day of Texas’ 85th legislative session, officials in Austin said they felt as if their agenda—focused on opposing “legislation that strips Austin residents of their right to self-governance,” according to legislative principles adopted by the city in October—had taken a few punches.

Legislators outlawed sanctuary cities and local government officials who encourage them, overruled Austin voters by not requiring Uber and Lyft to adhere to local background check policies, provided greater and cheaper access to public rights of way for telecom companies to install equipment, and stripped the local ability to impose fees on construction to assist with housing affordability.

Liberal lawmakers and city officials throughout the state took the position that the Legislature was restricting the freedom of cities for self-governance, a philosophy Austin Mayor Steve Adler said was once highly regarded by lawmakers in Texas.

“We taxed and pressed the value of local liberty and self-determination,” Adler said. “Local control was kind of flipped on its head, where people, [who] for years had advocated that the government closest to the people was best able to govern, became an enemy of that principle.”

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, commended the legislation for providing a more granular level of “local liberty”—that of the individual citizen, he said—by releasing residents from restrictions imposed by local government control.

“I can tell you that today, Austin is more free than it was before the legislative session began because the state of Texas passed laws that overrode the liberal agenda of Austin, Texas, that is trying to send Texas down the pathway of California,” Abbott said earlier in June.

Although the regular session provided its blows, the city’s legislative agenda celebrated some victories: The Legislature failed to pass a property tax reform bill that would require a taxpayer vote to approve an effective property tax increase that exceeded 5 percent, an annexation reform that would require a majority of the residents of an unincorporated area to approve an annexation and a bill to override the city’s gender-neutral bathroom ordinance.

But the celebration was short-lived: On June 6, Abbott announced he would call state lawmakers back to the Capitol for a 30-day, 20-item special session agenda that, among other initiatives, revived the property tax, annexation and bathroom bills as well as targeted city tree ordinances. When he called out the capital city as an example of why the state needed legislation that “prohibits local regulations,” the target many saw on Austin’s back became clearer.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said he thought Abbott placed a target on Austin’s back.

“I’m not a purist; there is some limit to what local governments can do,” Rodriguez said. “[But] I think that this particular governor has paid close attention to the city of Austin. … I’ve seen Austin bashed before, but this governor has taken it to a new level.”

Ellen Troxclair, the District 8 Austin City Council member, the lone conservative voice on the city’s 10-1 dais, said the city should not be surprised. She placed the blame on Austin for picking a fight with an opponent that has the constitutional advantage. 

“I feel like the city went out of [its] way to do things that any reasonable person could see [would not work] in a state that values personal liberty and economic freedom,” Troxclair said. “I don’t understand how [Austin] can make an argument that the will of local voters, when it comes to ridesharing, should be respected, then turning around and saying that local voters don’t have a right to have a say in our property tax rate or whether or not they’re annexed.”

The special session will kick off July 18.

Emily Donaldson contributed reporting to this story.

 Local control bill breakdown

During the 85th legislative session, state lawmakers proposed bills that would either conflict with Austin ordinances or restrict the city’s control on that matter.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt,

Senate Bill 2: Property tax cap

Status: Failed in the House

What is it?

  • Legislation proposed shrinking the maximum a municipality could increase its property tax revenue—without asking the voters—from 8 percent to 5 percent.

  • The bill died in the House after turning into legislation that asked municipalities to be more transparent about the tax rate.

  • Gov. Greg Abbott revived the bill in his call for a special session, but he said he would accept alternative property tax reform legislation as well.

What it means for Austin?

  • According to the city’s budget office, a cut in the maximum property tax rollback rate from 8%-5% would cost Austin $159.7 million between 2019 and 2022.

  • Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo said the city would not be able to keep pace with base cost drivers and would need to make budget cuts.

  • Van Eenoo said it would be extremely difficult to fund any new initiatives in the wake of a
    5 percent cap.

Sen. Charles Perry,

Senate Bill 4Sanctuary cities

Status: Signed by Abbott on May 7, effective Sept. 1

What is it?

  • The bill eliminates sanctuary cities and encouraging policies.

  • Local law enforcement can inquire about immigration status when performing routine stops.

  • Local agencies are prohibited from making policies against the practice.

What it means for Austin?

  • In Austin, a city in which 36.5 percent of the population is Hispanic, officers were previously discouraged from inquiring about the immigration status of individuals.

  • SB 4 encourages the inquiry and threatens to remove any elected official who does not enforce it.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst,

Senate Bill 6: Bathroom bill

Status: Failed in the House

What is it?

  • The bill would nullify local nondiscrimination ordinances that apply to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals as it relates to bathroom use and would regulate bathroom use based on biological gender.

  • Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listed the bill as a legislative priority.

  • Failed in the House, but Abbott revived its companion bill—HB 2899—for the special session, which revokes nondiscrimination ordinances related to bathroom use.

What it means for Austin?

  • It would undermine Austin’s 2014 ordinance requiring businesses to make single-occupancy bathrooms gender-neutral.

  • Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the bill would threaten the inclusive culture in Austin, one of the more prominent LGBTQ communities in the country.

  • Adler said more than 25 conventions have threatened to abandon Austin in the event of a bathroom bill passage, which would have a significant financial impact on the city.

Rep. Chris Paddie,

House Bill 100: Ride-hailing

Status: Signed by Abbott on May 29, effective immediately

What is it?

  • The bill was proposed in the wake of cities, including Austin, instituting their own ride-hailing business regulations, which the Legislature found restrictive.

  • HB 100 establishes a statewide framework of regulation, voiding any existing local ordinance.

What it means for Austin?

  • Ride-hailing drivers no longer have to undergo fingerprint-based background checks.

  • Ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft, which left following the city’s support of the fingerprinting in 2016, returned the same day the legislation went into effect.

Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland[/caption]

House Bill 62: Texting while driving

Status: Signed by Abbott on June 6, effective Sept. 1

What is it?

  • Texas was one of four states without a texting-while-driving ban.

  • Last year 455 people were killed, and over 3,000 were seriously injured in distracted-driving crashes.

  • The bill prohibits a driver from texting unless he or she is at a complete stop, but it still permits the use of GPS systems and texting for emergency purposes.

  • It does not undo any local ordinance.

What it means for Austin?

  • Austin passed a citywide ban on electronic device use while driving in 2014.

  • Austin’s law is tighter than the state’s regulation and also applies to bicyclists.

  • In his call for a special session, Abbott urged legislators to pass a law that would preempt all local ordinances and effectively loosen Austin’s rules.

Rep. Ron Simmons,

House Bill 1449: Linkage fees

Status: Signed by Abbott on May 29, effective immediately

What is it?

  • Simmons suggested a bill to eliminate linkage fees, which the city of Austin was considering implementing.

  • Linkage fees are fees levied on new construction to raise money for affordable housing. No city in Texas currently implements linkage fees.

  • Opponents of the bill said it would supersede local control and harm a municipality’s ability to make decisions about affordable housing.

What it means for Austin?

  • In the midst of its own housing and affordability crisis, Austin officials were seriously considering adopting a linkage fee policy.

  • HB 1449 took that option off the table.

  • Austin will now have to rely on other affordable housing funding mechanisms, such as density bonus programs.

Sen. Kelly Hancock,
R-North Richland Hills[/caption]

Senate Bill 1004: Small cell tower expansion

Status: Sent to Abbott on May 27

What is it?

  • The bill gives telecom companies easier and cheaper access to the public’s right of way.

  • Cities would no longer have exclusive control over the public rights of way, and would have to allow third-party access to traffic signals and other city infrastructure at a capped fee of $250 per installed signal node per year.

  • The bill would encourage a stronger wireless internet framework in cities, but as the Legislative Budget Board noted it could have significant negative fiscal impacts locally.

What it means for Austin?

  • Austin just inked deals with AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile to allow the companies to install some nodes on public rights of way.

  • The city charged $1,500 per node per year, but it will have to cap the annual fee at $250.

Sen. Donna Campbell,
R-New Braunfels[/caption]

Senate Bill 715: Annexation rights

Status: Filibustered, failed in Senate

What is it?

  • Revamping the state’s annexation policies was proposed to give a stronger voice to the residents of a potentially annexed area.

  • State law allows a city to annex the equivalent of up to 10 percent per year of its incorporated land from its extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ—unincorporated land within 5 miles of its city limits.

  • Cities would need majority approval of residents in the area before an annexation.

  • Abbott revived the bill for his special session.

What it means for Austin?

  • Next year Austin has the right to annex up to 18,000 acres of land.

  • Austin would have to seek approval from residents before moving forward.

  • Legislation could reverse the planned annexation of communities such as River Place—scheduled to be annexed Dec. 31—despite being slated for annexation since 2009.

By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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