Viewpoints: Austin took punches from Legislature — but not all was bad

Texas Republicans proved once again this legislative session that local control is not as sacred an issue as they claim.

Instead, a GOP-led Legislature passed measures that overrule cities’ home rule and open the door for future state interference on a host of local issues big and small. The state’s overreach threatens to harm long-fought efforts by previous lawmakers and local and business leaders to sell Texas as an appealing and diverse place to live and do business.

Bills filed this year — some aimed squarely at Austin and Travis County — sought to overturn local regulations on many fronts, including ones here in Austin that protect trees, ban plastic bags and prohibit limitations on rental properties. The city of Austin took some significant legislative punches — and it could take more if Gov. Greg Abbott calls for a special session.

“Austin has always been a target,” Mayor Steve Adler told us. “But I think this year, the target was more general. This year, I saw more hostility towards cities.”

RELATED: City of Austin files lawsuit against ‘sanctuary cities’ ban.

Two bills attacked public safety ordinances in cities across Texas, specifically Austin. House Bill 100, a measure that now puts regulations on ride-hailing companies in the hands of the state and not cities, and Senate Bill 4, the state’s ban on so-called sanctuary jurisdictions.

In passing House Bill 100, state lawmakers overruled Austin voters who wanted more transparency and accountability from transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft.

Instead, the state laid out relaxed requirements that protect Texans less.

Abbott and Republican supporters said Senate Bill 4 is all about keeping dangerous criminals off the streets. It allows local law enforcement officers to ask about a person’s immigration status at their discretion, even during routine traffic stops. The law does less to keep Texans safe. Instead, it could open the door to racial profiling by upending local policies aimed at building trust with immigrant communities, thereby keeping us all safer.

Abbott and supporters of the bill say the new law is all about keeping dangerous criminals off the street. However, public safety doesn’t look the same in every corner of the state. Public trust, which plays a significant role in successful public safety policies, is best earned at the local level. In this case, the new law not only paves the way for cases of racial profiling, it also hampers trust-building opportunities in immigrant communities.

Legal challenges in defense of and against the new law already have been filed. More lawsuits are likely to follow.

Other bills which passed and which addressed local control include:

• HB 1449 outlaws Texas cities from charging “linkage fees” on new construction or rehabilitated development to help pay for affordable housing. The city of Austin doesn’t have such a fee, though some have suggested implementing one.

• On the flip side, HB 3281will give municipalities flexibility in creating affordable housing funding options through homestead preservation districts. The law allows some cities to collect a certain percentage of property taxes from the districts to create affordable housing in those areas.

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The damage to Austin and cities could have been worse. Among bills that failed and that would have overturned local ordinances in Austin or surrounding cities:

• HB 577 would have overturned Austin’s “ban the box” ordinance, which prevents employers from asking about criminal convictions on initial employment applications.

• SB 103 would have overturned plastic bag bans ordinances in several Texas cities, including Austin.

• SB 451 would have prevented Texas cities, including Austin and Fort Worth, from banning short-term rentals and would have limited how municipalities write ordinances restricting the practice.

• SB 782 and HB 1572 sought to overturn local tree ordinances, preventing property owners from removing certain trees on their property.

• HB 4045 and SB 1814 would have watered down oversight on groundwater pumping in the Hill Country.

• HB 2802 would have repealed a law subjecting the Lower Colorado River Authority and a host of other river authorities to sunset review.

• SB 715 would have limited cities’ power to annex outlying areas without resident approval. Austin and other major cities opposed the measure.

While we are encouraged that these local ordinances remain intact, the fight isn’t over. Abbott can still call a special session and include two items that could have harsh consequences for cities across Texas, including a controversial bill to regulate what toilets and changing facilities transgender students can use.

A special session could also include a property-tax reform bill that would cap the percentage a city can increase taxes without a public vote. Local leaders, including Adler, have said such limitations would affect a municipality’s ability to pay for essential emergency services like police and fire departments.

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The same lawmakers bashing local ordinances and regulations are the same state Republicans who have long railed against presumed federal overreach.

“I’m not sure why the legislature sometimes wants to make (Austin) be and look like other parts of the state,” said Adler. “Having a diversified portfolio of cities works to the benefit of the state.”

He’s right.

Though Urban cities may not mirror the rest of the state, they are economic generators for Texas — and cities like Austin are meccas of innovation and imagination.

Instead of undermining local ordinances, state lawmakers would do well to learn from the careful consideration cities take in creating ordinances for the diverse communities they serve. Texas would benefit greatly if they did.

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