Austin needs to dramatically sharpen its offense and defense in dealing with the Texas Legislature when it convenes this week to protect many hard-won accomplishments championed by local voters and their representatives. Those include Austin’s regulations on short-term rental properties, requirements for ride-hailing companies to fingerprint their drivers, and, of course, Austin Energy’s regulatory authority and market share.
That there will be an attack on those issues is a given considering the leadership in control of the Texas Senate — led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – that has made clear its intent to force local governments to conform to its conservative agenda. The best hope in stopping anti-local control measures rests with the House, led by GOP House Speaker Joe Straus, whose members are elected from smaller districts than state senators and therefore tend to be more attuned to local voters.
Local control, once a pinnacle of conservative ideology, is out the window, replaced with big-government measures that aim to usurp the will and authority of smaller governments that are closer to the communities they serve. A good example of that is a state-proposed measure Patrick is pushing that would dictate which bathroom a transgender person would use — a decision that should be left to local governments and private companies.
This session, bills are expected to move out of the Senate much faster than in previous sessions so they are less susceptible to parliamentary procedures in the House that can and do kill bills. Austin had better be ready for that.
“Half the Senate will be wearing cervical collars because of the whiplash of watching how fast (bills prioritized by Patrick) fly out of the Senate,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.
Among those is Senate Bill 2. The bill by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, would limit how much city and county property tax rates could increase without voter approval. That threshold would be set at 4 percent compared to the 8 percent currently in place. Also, Bettencourt’s bill would automatically trigger elections in which voters could nix planned tax rate increases of 4 percent or greater compared with current law in which voters must petition to hold such an election.
Certainly, we’ve criticized the city of Austin and Travis County for going to the maximum tax rate in some years instead of holding the line on budgets. But the biggest offenders in our skyrocketing property tax system are not in city halls or county seats. They are in state government.
Property taxes levied by school districts are by far the single-largest and most burdensome Texans are hit with annually. That’s because the state continues to push much of its responsibility in financing schools onto local voters. The Legislature could deliver true property tax relief by increasing its share of school funding instead of deflecting or engaging in woefully inadequate measures such as Senate Bill 2. Texans need real tax relief, not smoke and mirrors.
At least Austin won’t be alone in fighting off Senate Bill 2 or pushing for the state to increase school funding and fix its Robin Hood scheme so Austin and other Central Texas districts can keep more of their local revenue. Other large cities and school districts will join those fights.
But Austin might find itself alone in facing some daggers reserved for the city.
That dilemma is largely the result of a provocative declaration by newly elected Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, a Democrat, who while on the campaign trail said she would not hold convicted felons or other inmates in the Travis County jail when the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency sent detainers for them.
Such action would make Austin the state’s first so-called sanctuary city, as the Texas Tribune reported in August following an interview with Hernandez, who took office last week.
In a GOP-dominated state, that was akin to poking a growling bear. And while Hernandez has since tried to soften her position on the matter by saying she would review current jail policies and hold discussions with others before making decisions regarding ICE, the damage is done. The bear now is in full charge.
Republican state Rep. Paul Workman of Austin has filed a bill outlawing sanctuary cities in Texas, echoing similar legislation in the Senate as well as Patrick’s pledge to prioritize a legislative ban against sanctuary cities.
But the fallout to Austin extends beyond a ban.
Hernandez’s statement to end cooperation with ICE is seen by Republicans from Gov. Greg Abbott on down as an attack on GOP orthodoxy. As such they are looking for ways to chasten Austin. Privately, some Democrats have expressed their displeasure with what they consider unnecessary needling by Hernandez.
Indeed, while willy-nilly deportation creates bad humanitarian and financial policy, what Hernandez has suggested would shield all county inmates — including dangerous felons — from ICE. As of the end of October, most of the county jail ICE detainers were for immigrant inmates facing felony charges — a huge shift from past years when the vast majority were for inmates facing misdemeanor charges. The federal policy now in place prioritizes felons for ICE detainers so as to prevent deportation of minor offenders.
And that protection from federal scrutiny offered at the county jail would come at a cost. The American-Statesman reported that Travis County could lose millions of dollars in state and federal grants if it ended all cooperation with ICE — another reason Hernandez should clarify her statement. Those costs likely would be passed along to taxpayers.
With Austin-bashing in full swing, local officials must make an effective case for keeping certain things intact, such as the city’s plastic bag ban, protections for Austin Energy and its ordinance phasing out Type 2 short-term rentals, which essentially operate as year-round commercial businesses in residential neighborhoods.
That case is best made by showcasing Austin’s and Travis County’s continued economic success and contributions to the state’s growth and prosperity. But for goodness sake, stop poking the bear.