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Austin leaders relieved but still lick wounds from special session


Mayor Steve Adler said the Legislature’s special session was a failure for not addressing school finance.

Several bills that aimed at tamping down local control failed to reach Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair said blaming state lawmakers was disingenuous.

When Gov. Greg Abbott called state lawmakers back to the Capitol last month, he gave them a clear mission to strip municipalities of regulations and ordinances that he thought were too meddlesome.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said Abbott had declared a war on cities. Abbott’s proposals would jeopardize funding for police and firefighters and destroy sophisticated land use ordinances shaped by contentious local debates, Adler said. Even laws like the local hands-free ordinance would be upended.

Of Abbott’s nine special session priorities that would have undermined local control on a host of issues, bills relating to only two of the issues were sent to the governor’s desk — limiting annexation authority and tree ordinances. And the tree measure was watered down from Abbott’s initial proposal to prohibit cities from restricting tree removal on private property. The measure he signed wouldn’t affect Austin’s tree ordinance and is very similar to a bill he vetoed in June.

SPECIAL SESSION: What happened with each of Gov. Abbott’s 20 issues

So, did Austin dodge a bullet?

Adler said no. As has been his refrain since the city announced that it would seek to raise property taxes the maximum allowed without giving residents the option of petitioning for an election, the mayor said the Legislature failed by not addressing school finance.

“It was good that some damaging things didn’t pass,” Adler said. “But quite frankly, it seems to be an intent to get people distracted. Our property taxes are going to continue to go up until the state fixes the school finance system.”

The bills that didn’t pass would have imposed deadlines on cities to rule on building permits; backdated land use ordinances and zoning to the date a property was purchased; eliminated local laws on cellphone use while driving; and banned government money to Planned Parenthood and abortion providers.

And a standoff between the upper and lower chambers resulted in the failure of legislation that would have tightened the cap on property tax increases without voter approval.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair, the City Council’s sole conservative, said that it was disingenuous to blame state lawmakers for Austin’s growing property taxes.

“(Adler) obviously wants the talking points to be that property taxes are going up because of school finance,” she said. “Meanwhile, we keep raising property taxes the maximum year after year.”

Troxclair said many of the bills that irked Austin’s largely left-leaning constituency came about because local leaders picked fights when they passed laws or policies they knew would garner repudiation from state lawmakers.

“It is interesting how frequently and strongly the mayor and the other council members are pointing fingers at the state,” Troxclair said. “When they complain about whatever they are complaining about this week, they should realize it is only because they passed an ordinance that flies in the face of where the Legislature wants to go.”

READ: 5 takeaways from the summer special legislative session

She was also irked by the characterization of the special session as a tool to quash local control.

“I look at some of these issues through a different lens,” Troxclair said. “A lot of these were returning the power of governance to the voters, which is real local control.”

Council Member Leslie Pool said the bill addressing local ordinances protecting trees was particularly “baffling.”

“In the end, it was a lot of sound and fury and signified very little,” Pool said. “The bill is not substantially different from the one he vetoed. I have to say, what good came from that?”

Council Member Greg Casar said Austin might have dodged a few bullets. But the city was still feeling the sting from laws passed during the regular session, he said. Casar has since promoted legal challenges to laws such as the ban on so-called sanctuary cities policies.

On Thursday, the City Council approved an initiative Casar spearheaded that directs the city to sue the state over Senate Bill 1004, a bill passed in the regular session that requires cities to grant wireless telecommunication companies access to street signs and utility poles for small cellular nodes.

Casar said he wasn’t eager for lawmakers to return to the Capitol.

“I wouldn’t mind if they took the next two or even four years off,” Casar said.

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