Senate panel OKs bill requiring voter approval for annexations

7:36 p.m Sunday, July 23, 2017 Texas News & Politics
State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, speaks at a Senate Finance Committee hearing at the Capitol on Sunday about a bill that would require a vote of residents in areas considered for annexation. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

A state Senate panel approved a bill Sunday that would give residents targeted for annexation by cities in large Texas counties the opportunity to reject such efforts, one of several bills being considered during a 30-day special legislative session that would curb the authority of cities, including Austin.

Senate Bill 6 by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, is largely identical to its previous incarnation in the regular session, which ended in May. That bill probably would have headed to the governor’s desk if not for a filibuster that killed it.

SB 6 passed 7-2, with Democratic Sens. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo voting no.

That was part of a flurry of activity at the Capitol over the weekend. Senate committees met Saturday and Sunday, approving bills for the full Senate to consider this week. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has said he would like the upper chamber to approve by midweek legislation addressing all 20 of Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session agenda items. Senate support of Abbott’s conservative agenda is all but assured, as like-minded Republicans dominate the chamber. The House, meanwhile, is moving at a much slower pace.

Putting annexations into the hands of voters is one of Abbott’s 20 priorities.

“It’s been roughly two decades since annexation has been reformed,” Campbell said. “During that time the need for reform has become apparent. … (Annexed residents) have to take on city debt, city ordinances and city taxes that none of them asked for and without a vote. That is not what Texas is about.”

A large majority of the dozens of speakers who addressed the Senate State Affairs Committee registered their support for SB 6.

It would require cities in counties with populations above 500,000 to get voter approval of residents in an area targeted for annexation if more than 200 people live there. A city would have to circulate a petition for annexation areas with fewer than 200 residents and get signatures from more than half of the property owners.

“Involuntary annexation wasn’t cool when the Germans did it to France, it wasn’t cool when the Soviet Union did it to Eastern Europe, and it’s not cool when the cities of Austin, Houston and San Antonio are doing it in the state of Texas,” Austin resident Adam Cahn told the committee.

Some of the speakers and senators at the meeting said they would prefer the annexation rules apply to cities in all counties, no matter the population.

Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman
Destinee Serdinia, left, and John Wildenthal, both from Boerne, listen during a Senate Finance Committee hearing at the Capitol on Sunday about a bill that would require a vote of residents in areas considered for annexation.

The city of Austin is in the process of annexing the western Travis County neighborhood River Place. Resident Dan Kutz said if given the choice he, and most of his neighbors, would vote against being incorporated into Austin.

“It will increase my taxes and utility bills through Austin Water while reducing quality of government,” Kutz said. “I deserve the basic fairness of a vote and feel certain my neighbors will reject annexation from the city of Austin.”

Most of those who testified against the bill were officials from cities, including Austin and Fort Worth. Scott Houston, general counsel with the Texas Municipal League, said SB 6 would fundamentally change city finance across the state. He told the committee that while many other states require voters to approve annexations, they have more diversified funding that comes from state coffers.

“Saying folks should have a vote is akin to saying Texas should have regional tax or even an income tax,” Houston said.

Among those against the bill was Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman, who said that passage of SB 6 would undo years of work for his city and other cities that have entered into strategic partnerships with areas they are planning to annex.

Sugar Land is in Fort Bend County, south of Houston, with a population exceeding 500,000.

“We understand strategic partnerships, because they were made banking on the thought the Legislature would never have annexation reform,” Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said. “We have to let the public know that we as politicians feel that people should be able to determine their own self-governance.”

Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman
State Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D- Brownsville, speaks at a Senate Finance Committee hearing at the Capitol on Sunday about a bill that would require a vote of residents in areas considered for annexation.
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