- By Philip Jankowski American-Statesman Staff
The story of Austin and this year’s legislative session wouldn’t end with the fairy tale trope “and they lived happily ever after.” A better conclusion to this saga could come from Revelation 12:12: “For the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.”
In the four months since the 85th legislative session opened, state lawmakers have enacted a slew of laws seemingly aimed at the Capital City, undoing a local election and creating a law that could threaten city and county elected officials with jail time.
“The great thing about Austin is its proximity to the state of Texas,” local Republican political strategist Matt Mackowiak said. “You had two trains heading directly at each other, and the state can certainly trump the city.”
Before the session began, the comments of the state’s most powerful lawmakers showed that they were unhappy with Travis County.
Gov. Greg Abbott vowed to “hammer” Travis County. Attorney General Ken Paxton, when asked what he would do since he can no longer sue President Barack Obama, replied he’d be just fine suing the city of Austin.
And that he did. Shortly after the passage of Senate Bill 4, the controversial “sanctuary cities” ban, Paxton named the city of Austin as the top defendant in a lawsuit asking a federal judge to determine the law’s constitutionality.
“The bad news is that the city took it on the chin this session,” said local political consultant Mark Littlefield, a Democrat. “The good news is it could have been much worse.”
Many on the right cheered the laws that unraveled local ordinances, which had been derided as liberal overregulation or downright illegal.
“The big question is, ‘Was Austin picked on?’ ” Travis County Republican Party Chairman James Dickey said. “Austin may feel picked on, but only because they decided to pick the fight.”
Those on the left called Republicans’ willingness to usurp local ordinances with state law hypocritical.
“They don’t like our politics; they don’t like our culture,” Littlefield said. “So they’re overturning our local authority.”
Local ride-hailing rules undone
On Monday, Uber and Lyft drivers in Austin will be firing up their motors once more.
It’s been a little more than a year since Austin voters handily rejected the ride-hailing giants’ $8.6 million campaign to overturn a city ordinance requiring that drivers have fingerprint-based background checks. Uber and Lyft promptly pulled out of Austin after losing the vote.
That led to the creation of a ride-hailing nonprofit, Ride Austin, and caused several other companies to begin operations in the city. But with the passage of House Bill 100, the city’s experiment with alternative ride-sharing could be threatened.
Before the session, multiple bills were filed seeking to create statewide rules on ride-sharing that would undo Austin’s ordinance and others like it in Houston and Corpus Christi. Mayor Steve Adler charged that HB 100 was tailor-made for Uber and Lyft.
Almost as soon as it cleared both chambers of the Legislature, the companies began contacting former drivers. Abbott is expected to sign the bill Monday.
“On Uber and Lyft, the challenge was that lawmakers had become accustomed to using them,” Mackowiak said. “Lawmakers are much more aware of Austin than other areas of Texas because they are here periodically for conferences.”
Focus of ‘sanctuary’ fight
On the same day President Donald Trump was inaugurated, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez announced that she would put in place the most progressive jail policy in Texas when it came to immigration issues.
Shortly after, Abbott promised a law that would make Hernandez’s policy illegal, and banning so-called sanctuary cities became one of his top priorities for the Legislature.
As it moved through the Legislature, the political battle over the issue became perhaps the most intense of the session, with multiple rallies and protests, including one that led to the arrest of Austin City Council Member Greg Casar.
The law that passed, SB 4, ended up being stricter than what had been proposed after a protracted battle in the House. Lawmakers there at the last minute tacked on an amendment that empowers police to inquire about a person’s immigration status during routine interactions, such as traffic stops.
University of Texas professor Jim Harrington, an attorney who founded the Texas Civil Rights Project, noted that police chiefs, including Austin interim Chief Brian Manley, opposed the law. He called the state lawmakers who supported SB 4 “hypocrites.”
“It shows they don’t really believe in local control,” Harrington said. “They just don’t believe in it. It is punitive, and they are ideologues.”
The fight has now shifted to the courts, where lawsuits against the state continue to trickle in. The Austin City Council voted earlier this month to sue the state after Paxton sued the city in what has been viewed as a pre-emptive strike.
Even as SB 4 could affect Travis County and Austin the most — officials who put in place “sanctuary” policies could be charged with a crime and the state could levy harsh fines against them — Dickey blamed local Democrats for starting the fight.
“The person who walks down the street breaking windows is going to be affected most by the law against people walking down the street breaking windows,” he said.
Linkage fees and annexations
At least two other bills have gone against the city of Austin’s wishes.
A task force that recently examined institutionalized racism in Austin floated the idea of placing a fee on new developments. The idea was to put a fee of $2 per square foot on any new development to generate as much as $600 million for low-income housing over the next 10 years.
The idea had been there for a little more than a month when the Legislature voted to kill it. That bill is headed to the governor’s desk.
Austin officials also opposed a bill passed by both chambers that could take annexations out of the hands of the city. The bill wasn’t aimed at Austin specifically, but it was opposed by many city leaders from across the state who said it will lead to people benefiting from being near an urban area without contributing to the tax base.
For Littlefield, it’s just business as usual.
“Since the capital was moved to Austin 150 years ago, this has happened every session,” he said. “I wish I could always blame Republicans — and I do this time — but bashing on Austin has been going on since before the Republican takeover.”