A special session of the Legislature that Mayor Steve Adler called a “war against cities” will be fought on at least nine fronts for the city of Austin.
Gov. Greg Abbott called the monthlong session, beginning July 18, after a regular session heavily focused on overturning local measures that Republican lawmakers consider governmental overreach.
Nine of 20 Abbott-proposed bills for the special session specifically target local authority. Some, like a lower property tax increase cap and municipal annexation reform, echo bills heavily debated during the recent session. Others, like calls to speed up local permitting and bar ordinances from affecting already-begun construction projects appear new — and mystifying to city leaders.
Here’s a look at what’s on the table:
Property tax reform
A measure in the special session might resemble Senate Bill 2, which stalled at the end of the regular session, to force an election if a city or county tries to raise property taxes more than 5 percent. Currently, an election is triggered by tax increases above 8 percent, and only if residents petition to put it on the ballot.
Austin expects to raise its taxes up to that amount for 2018, as it did for 2017. Local leaders have argued that limiting their ability to raise taxes could hamstring efforts to fund important services, including public safety, which accounts for nearly 70 percent of the city budget funded by property taxes.
Limit budget increases
Abbott said he’d like to limit all state and local budget increases to no more than population growth and the rate of inflation.
Though ideas like this have been tossed around the Legislature before, no particular bill made it a primary mission this past session. Thus, Austin officials have no estimates for how such a measure could affect the city budget or how it might work alongside the proposed property tax reform.
Overturn rules protecting trees
Abbott said he would like a bill preventing cities from regulating what property owners can do with trees on private land. If that bill resembles Senate Bill 782, which never made it out of committee this session, it would specify that a landowner owns the trees on his property and can do as he wishes with them, and it would limit the tree removal fees that cities charge.
About 50 Texas cities have tree protection ordinances, including Round Rock, Pflugerville, Sunset Valley, Lockhart and West Lake Hills. Austin’s ordinance requires landowners to get city permission to cut down any trees with diameters of more than 19 inches and prohibits removing “heritage trees” — certain species with diameters of at least 24 inches — unless the tree is a safety risk or is preventing reasonable land use. From 2014 to 2016, the city preserved 43,000 trees, approved removing 23,000 and required the planting of 24,000 replacement trees.
Disallowing mid-construction rule changes
Abbott called for legislation to prevent local governments from changing rules midway through construction projects. The idea doesn’t appear to originate from a bill filed during this year’s session.
Austin officials didn’t know whether the proposal came in response to anything specific or how it could affect the city.
Speeding up permitting
Abbott said he would like to see a bill speeding up the local government permitting process.
Austin has well-known problems with permits processed through its Development Review Department. A nearly 700-page report in 2015 highlighted slow permit approvals and poor communication within the department, and contractors building projects in Austin have long said it takes longer to receive approvals here than in other cities. But it’s unclear what the Legislature could or would do to change that.
Municipal annexation reform
A Senate filibuster last month killed the final version of Senate Bill 715, which would have required cities with at least 500,000 residents to get approval from a majority of the property owners they seek to annex in order to do so.
Officials in Austin and other growing Texas cities have long said annexation is a necessary tool to manage development and provide standardized city services to nearby areas. Limiting the city’s ability to annex would restrict its ability to grow its tax base. Residents nixing proposed annexations before the lengthy public hearing process could also pre-empt any compromises between parties.
The Austin City Council decided two years ago to forgo annexing the Upper Bull Creek area near Old Lampasas Trail and Spicewood Springs Road because property owners unanimously opposed it. But Adler, who voted in the minority, said at the time the decision wasn’t a precedent.
“I’m not comfortable leaving the decision about whether or not we annex to a popular vote of the people being annexed,” the mayor said at the time.
Overturn local restrictions on phone use in cars
Abbott signed into law this week a statewide ban on texting or emailing while driving, but signaled he wants to see a measure to pre-empt all local ordinances regarding use of a hand-held phone while driving. Abbott decried this “patchwork” of local laws, returning to a theme he used in support of the statewide ride-hailing law he signed Memorial Day.
Close to 90 Texas cities have some law concerning phone use while driving. Austin comprehensively bans any use of a hand-held device in a moving car for virtually any purpose, including talking on a hand-held phone while driving. The net effect in Austin, should lawmakers pass such a law in the special session and Abbott sign it, is that yakking with a phone to your ear and the other hand on the steering wheel would once again be legal in the city.
Limit transgender-friendly bathroom policies
After a session in which a transgender bathroom ban in schools was one of the most emotional issues, Abbott said he’d like to see legislation that would pre-empt local transgender-friendly bathroom policies and other anti-discrimination ordinances.
An Austin ordinance passed in 2014 requires single-occupant public restrooms to have gender-neutral signs making them available to anyone. The proposed changes on the state level could overturn that. It could also nullify other local anti-discrimination ordinances, including Austin measures saying a person cannot refuse to sell or rent property to people based on factors including sexual orientation or gender identity.
Ban governmental agencies from collecting union dues
If the bill resembles Senate Bill 13, filed last session, it would prohibit the automatic deduction of union dues from the paychecks of governmental employees, including teachers. The move passed the Senate in a party-line vote, but then stalled in a House committee.
SB 13 didn’t apply to police and firefighters, so it’s unclear whether a new bill would do so. But it could affect civilian city employees in Austin and Travis County, some of whom have dues automatically deducted for AFSCME Local 1624. Those deductions have no cost impact to the city.