Senate hearing Saturday puts local government authority in cross hairs


Highlights

The proposed bill would override local rules on cellphone use while driving.

The committee Sunday will vote on banning local tree preservation laws and changing permitting rules.

Another bill to ‘grandfather’ local development rules was softened after complaints on short-term rentals.

A bill barring local governments, including Austin, from regulating phone use while driving sailed through a Texas Senate committee Saturday on a party line vote after an all-day hearing on that and several other bills that would strip authority from cities.

The Senate Business and Commerce Committee delayed until Sunday action on Senate Bill 12, which would curtail local development rules; SB 13, which would limit review for construction permits; and SB 14, which would void local ordinances regulating tree removal on private property. The vote on SB 15, overriding local rules barring the use of phones while behind the wheel, was 7-2, with all Republicans in favor and Democrats John Whitmire of Houston and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo opposed.

The debate on all the bills broke down into a contest between city officials’ desire for “local control” and Republican lawmakers’ demand for what one dubbed “local liberty.”

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Three Senate committees met Saturday to tackle Gov. Greg Abbott’s conservative agenda for the 30-day special session, which began Tuesday. Four committees are scheduled to meet Sunday.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has said he would like the Senate to approve all 20 measures by midweek. Swift action in the upper chamber will ratchet up the pressure on House Republican leaders, who take a dim view of some of Abbott’s agenda items. It’s not clear how they will view the legislation stripping authority from municipalities because much of it was not considered during the regular session earlier this year.

The Senate committee spent much of Saturday working through the four proposals to limit what Republicans see as overreaching and overregulating local governments. But a number of witnesses, including elected city officials, said that state legislators themselves are looking to grab power.

“Rules should be made at the local level and not by an overreaching central government here in Austin,” said Mary Dennis, the mayor of Live Oak and president of the Texas Municipal League, testifying on SB 14. That legislation, carried by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, would prohibit cities and counties from enforcing ordinances preventing property owners from removing trees or other vegetation. At least 90 Texas cities, including Austin, Round Rock, Pflugerville, Lakeway and West Lake Hills, have some form of rules restricting tree removal on private property.

Supporters of that bill and the three others before the committee said the issue is the preservation of private rights in the face of aggressive local governments.

“Locally, private property owners are being controlled,” said Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, speaking about SB 12. “The bill’s intent is trying to have local liberty. That’s what we’re trying to do with many of the bills this session, have more local liberty.”

‘Patchwork’ of local rules

The suite of bills grew from Abbott’s 2½-year push to expunge what he sees as a “patchwork” of municipal laws on phone use while driving, tree preservation, permitting and development. Abbott himself, before he was governor and while he lived in a West Austin home, had crossed swords with the city of Austin over removal of a tree on his lot.

“We are having to step in because local governments have overstepped their bounds,” Hall said during the discussion of his tree legislation.

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In the case of phoning while driving, the Legislature in May passed (and Abbott later signed into law) a bill outlawing typing, sending or reading electronic messages while behind the wheel. That law, set to take effect Sept. 1, is less restrictive than more than three dozen local laws, which likewise ban having a conversation using a hand-held phone while driving.

SB 15, rather than broadening the new texting-while-driving ban to prohibit all use of a hand-held phone while driving, instead would bar local governments from regulating phone use while driving. Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the sponsor of the bill that will become law in a few weeks, suggested that Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, SB 15’s sponsor, consider substituting a version that would broadly ban all hand-held phone use while driving.

“It’s what we really wanted to pass and couldn’t” over the past decade, Zaffirini said. SB 15, she said, “is a giant step backward.”

Opposition

All four bills were opposed by elected officials or staffers from the cities of Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Galveston, with officials from other cities, including Houston, Corpus Christi and Sugar Land, testifying against one or more of the measures. The most consistent support for the bills came from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. But the committee also heard from individuals who had had bad experiences with cities on those issues.

SB 12 appeared to have been considerably softened, based on a substitute bill that was submitted to the committee about an hour before the hearing began. Among other changes, Buckingham altered the bill so that cities would retain control over short-term rental properties.

SB 13, the permitting bill, would shorten the period for cities to review permits from 45 days to 30 and require automatic approval in many cases if the shorter deadline is missed. The bill also would override local requirements for so-called living wages, such as the one in Austin, instead reverting to the federal minimum wage of just over $7 an hour.

“Wages should be set by the employer,” not the government, Campbell said.



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