The 85th Texas Legislature will convene Jan. 10, and Hays County legislators are supporting bills that include decriminalizing marijuana, transferring ownership of the bed and banks of the San Marcos River, and reforming the annexation process for cities.
‘Bed and Banks’
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, prefiled Senate Bill 71, a bill that deals with San Marcos specifically but could have statewide implications.
If passed, SB 71, or the “bed-and-banks” bill, would transfer the ownership of the land in the riverbed and along the banks of the San Marcos River located within city limits from the state to the city.
Kristi Wyatt, city of San Marcos spokesperson, said this would allow for the city to better protect the river and the wildlife that calls it home.
“[The bill would] help us to make everything run smoother and allow us to do the things we do on a day-to-day basis more efficiently,” Wyatt said.
The city is responsible for removing litter in and along the river, discouraging invasive wildlife and non-native plants, and installing native plants, among other maintenance, city staff said.
The Edwards Aquifer is home to seven endangered species, such as the fountain darter, Texas wild rice and the Texas blind salamander. Because the bed and banks of the river belong to the state, the city cannot enforce laws that would protect the river and wildlife.
“Everybody that lives here knows that we have a lot of endangered species we work really hard to protect. Sometimes it’s hard to protect them because we don’t have jurisdiction,” Wyatt said. “If people are going in and pulling [Texas wild rice] up, it’s not within our jurisdiction to ticket them or stop them.”
Owning the land would also simplify the process for making repairs in and along the river, such as at access points, Wyatt said.
Currently, state and federal permits must be obtained prior to work on any projects below the average water line, city staff said. Even for small repairs to existing infrastructure in the river, state agencies must grant approval before the city can start work.
According to the bill, ownership of the property automatically reverts to the state if the city fails to provide for the protection of health and general welfare, recreation, beautification and civic improvement, or if the city sells any or all of the property. The state would also retain oil, gas and other mineral rights.
“We have no intention of selling the land. That’s not something we would want to do,” Wyatt said. “We want to protect the river and everything in it.”
State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, said he’s invested in an issue that he admits is still unpopular with many Republicans who elected him: decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
“When I explain it to people, the feedback is overwhelmingly in support of the idea,” Isaac said at a Nov. 16 Dripping Springs town hall meeting.
He supports HB 81, filed by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, that would impose a fine rather than the arrest and jailing of those found to be in possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.
He used an example of Texas State University students who “make a mistake” and are found in possession of small amounts of marijuana.
“When they go to get a job when they graduate college, guess what comes up on their criminal background check, and guess who doesn’t get hired?” Isaac said. “People that you and I have invested in, [in] their educations, so that they can meet our workforce needs.”
Marijuana possession and consumption would still be against the law, but if passed, HB 81 would lower the offense to a Class C misdemeanor, “like a parking ticket,” Isaac said.
“It’s an economic development issue to me,” he said. “We want them to be able to get jobs. We want them to be economic contributors to the state of Texas. This would help do that.”
Center Street congestion in Kyle
Kyle Mayor Todd Webster said although the city will not hire a lobbyist or have a formal legislative agenda, the city is interested in one issue.
“We’ve had quite a bit of engagement with [state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels,] and Isaac about the rail siding relocation issue,” Webster said. “It’s a long shot, but we’re hoping to try to get some financial support so we can work in partnership to try to move the Center Street main siding.”
Webster said the siding’s current location near Center Street can cause trains to come to a complete stop, which happens four or five times per day at a minimum, he said. When this happens, traffic can be blocked on Center Street and nearby streets for nearly an hour, and it creates major problems, he said.
“It’s definitely a quality-of-life issue and mobility issue for us,” he said.
Kyle’s location on the I-35 corridor means traffic in the city can affect commuters in other towns.
“I think it’s a regional mobility issue,” he said. “Kyle residents aren’t the only ones moving through there.”
Campbell said she plans to file legislation to bring about annexation reform that would protect private property owners from forced annexation by cities. Annexation should not be a one-sided revenue grab, she said.
“[Annexation] simply is something that big cities use to add to their tax base and to continue with their unsustainable spending and their borrowing,” Campbell said at the Nov. 16 Dripping Springs town hall meeting. “I believe annexation should be a collaborative process where all the stakeholders are brought together, and every citizen has a voice in that. The way it is right now, in the big city, if the city wants to annex, they do. It’s very difficult for people to have a voice in that.”
Hotel occupancy tax reform
Buda Mayor Todd Ruge said he is working to receive state approval to use hotel occupancy tax revenue to fund city parks. He said he has talked with San Marcos officials about working together.
“We have a lot of hotels in Buda,” he said. “By state law, we can only spend [HOT tax revenue] on certain things.”
From September 2015 to September 2016, the city collected about $609,912 in HOT tax revenue, records from the Texas Comptroller show.
The HOT tax fund is “very healthy,” Ruge said, and he would like to see the funds go toward other city priorities.
“If we can get some localized legislation, we [could] tap into that extra money we have sitting there and divert it into our park system and promote ecotourism,” Ruge said.
The city budgeted funds for legislative activity, he said, and City Council will meet to discuss issues related to the upcoming legislative session so members “can all be on board.”
“If we propose anything, they’ll be local bills,” Ruge said. “[It] isn’t anything very radical.”
Property tax relief
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed a bill Nov. 29 that aims to reduce the tax burden on property owners, but San Marcos and other Central Texas cities along I-35 say the legislation would do more harm than good.
Dubbed the Texas Property Tax Reform and Relief Act of 2017, Senate Bill 2 would lower the rollback tax rate and require voter approval for a rate in excess of the rollback rate.
The rollback tax rate is the rate that would raise the same amount of tax revenue as the previous year plus 8 percent. SB 2 would reduce the rollback rate from 8 percent to 4 percent and trigger an automatic tax ratification election when a city, county or special district exceeds the rollback rate, among other measures.
“Texas taxpayers have been facing property tax bills that are increasing 2.5 to 3 times faster than the median household income,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “Throughout Texas, in hearing after hearing, the Select Committee heard the same message loud and clear: Texans are asking for and deserve property tax relief.”
But the cities of Austin, San Marcos, New Braunfels and San Antonio would have lost at least $770 million over the past decade under this law, according to a news release, while saving the average homeowner just a few dollars a month. Without this revenue, cities in the I-35 corridor will struggle to accommodate the rapid growth in the area, officials said.
“The state’s proposal would negatively impact every resident who wants a street repaired, every neighborhood that seeks better police protection and every business that needs improved infrastructure to better serve their customers,” San Marcos Mayor Daniel Guerrero said in a statement. “Texas cities are thriving, and this proposed legislation would stunt the progress we have made.”