Making a List
Austin's Scaled-Back Lobby Team Gears Up for Round Two at the Lege
If we're to believe the lobbyists and developers who do business with the Legislature, the city of Austin just might survive the upcoming session without serious calamity.
But don't hold your breath; legislative history has shown us, time and again, that anything can happen between now and May. Remember last session? Austin spent $1.6 million on a killer lobbying team and the mayor still got his hat handed to him. The Stratus Properties-driven Senate Bill 1704 rose from the dead with a vengeance as a House bill (after its inadvertent repeal in 1995), and Austin-taunting Rep. Ron Wilson, a Houston Democrat, tried to thwart the city's plans to close Mueller Airport.
Stratus won on 1704, and Wilson lost on Mueller. Now, in a stranger twist of fate, Stratus wants a piece of Mueller, and is willing to swap some of its land in the Barton Springs watershed that was "grandfathered" -- that is, exempted from current, more stringent water quality rules -- under HB 1704. In retrospect, 1704 provided Stratus with a dynamite bargaining chip to use if something more desirable but less environmentally sensitive, such as the city-owned Mueller site, came along.
Either way, Stratus appears to have the city over a barrel. Things are going so well for the company, in fact, that Stratus CEO Beau Armstrong claims to have called off his dogs at the Legislature. "From our standpoint, we have no legislative agenda," he said. "We're obviously going to be staying on top of issues as they relate to property rights, but we don't need anything. We have everything we need."
Stratus apparently isn't alone in its ostensible contentment. "In prior years, I would always hear the war drums beating pretty soundly at this point," development lawyer David Armbrust said a few days before Christmas. "But I'm not hearing anything from anybody in the development communities. I really don't see anyone putting a legislative agenda together that would be a detriment to Austin."
That's because, some would argue, Austin already gave away the store when it settled a dispute earlier this year with longstanding nemesis Gary Bradley and his Circle C development, and stands to give away even more as a result of ongoing negotiations with Stratus on the Mueller proposal.
Others believe that the overall political climate, not to mention the arduous redistricting process topping lawmakers' agendas, has most folks going into the 2001 session on the defensive, not the offensive. "Everyone's just trying to hold on to what they have right now," said Bill Miller, a public relations consultant who lobbied for the city in 1999.
In that spirit, the city intends to follow the Texas Municipal League's lead in opposing legislation that might seek to erode local control over such matters as annexation and city-owned utilities, and, in Capital Metro's case, control over its quarter-cent sales tax. But Austin's legislative agenda, which the City Council will set on Jan. 18, isn't likely to ask for much in the way of far-reaching legislation.
If indeed anti-Austin sentiment has waned somewhat, Mayor Kirk Watson attributes the new calm to his administration's heavy-duty public relations effort in the last session, which culminated with the mayor and his wife, Liz Watson, inviting a slew of legislators and lobbyists to a dinner in their West Austin home. "We came out of the last session with much stronger relationships than we've ever had, and we've continued to build on those relationships," Watson said.
Even more vulnerable than the city of Austin, however, is the mayor himself. Watson is being touted as a strong Democratic contender for a statewide post, or even, perhaps, a U.S. Senate seat, depending on whether incumbent Republicans Phil Gramm or Kay Bailey Hutchison decide to seek re-election. "I'm not sure how we're going to be viewed this session," said political consultant David Butts, who has worked on both of Watson's mayoral campaigns. "Some of the Republicans may have an axe to grind with the mayor because he's seen as a threat. But even though Rick Perry is no friend of Austin's, he might pull his horns in this session."
No matter what happens, Watson must certainly be a changed man after the roughing-up he got in the last session. Though the mayor and others won't talk about it, the development community's efforts to revive SB 1704 turned particularly nasty when Watson became the object of personal attacks. Fingers point to Stratus lobbyist Dick Brown as the culprit, although Stratus CEO Armstrong denies knowledge of any dirty dealings. Brown did not return a phone call from the Chronicle.
The attack campaign -- which allegedly included showing legislators some edited videotape footage of council meetings that were designed, as one source put it, to undermine Watson's credibility -- apparently came to a head in early March of 1999. It was around that same time that a historic land use truce was being negotiated between the Save Our Springs Alliance, the Real Estate Council of Austin, and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.
It was hoped that the truce would circumvent 1704, but the peace-building efforts apparently caused the bill's supporters to dig their heels in further, and they revved up their campaign against the mayor. One Saturday morning, some members of the SOS/RECA/GACC negotiating group showed up at the mayor's home to go over some of the peace treaty's finer points. "We expected the mayor to be supportive of our efforts," one member of the group said. But Watson was apparently too angry and upset about the personal attacks to offer plaudits. "The mayor used some of the bluest language I've ever heard," the group member recalled. "He went up there and tried really hard to defeat 1704 against all odds, and he paid a terrible price for it."
Though today isn't exactly a New Dawn, the ugliness of the 1704 debacle has evidently blown over, and Watson shrugs off any memory of the character-assassination attempts. "That's politics," is all he'll say.
What's in Store?
One indication that the city isn't expecting more than the usual hostility from legislators is the reduced cost -- $824,000 -- of the new team of lobbyists, many of whom are making a return engagement (see "Austin's Hired Guns," right). The biggest surprise of the bunch is Richard Hamner, longtime aide to Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, who will switch from aide to lobbyist in January, after 12 years of working in Barrientos' office. Watson is glad to have Hamner on board. "Obviously, Hamner has been around for a long time and he knows the process," Watson said. Hamner noted that his switch from aide to Austin lobbyist would be a good fit because of his familiarity with city issues. Others observe that Hamner's presence on the city's lobbying team might serve as a buffer between the city and the prickly Barrientos, whose relationship with city officials has historically run hot and cold.
Beyond trying to fend off any surprise attacks at the Lege, the city will be following a number of issues that may or not impact us directly. Specifically, like every other municipality, the city will keep an eye on how the Lege responds to Sunset Advisory Commission reviews of various regulatory agencies, including the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs, the Water Development Board, Parks and Wildlife, and the Railroad Commission. Changes affecting TNRCC, the state's largest environmental agency, would obviously have the biggest impact on Austin, particularly in matters relating to water and air quality, and the city's near-nonattainment status.
Gentrification issues may get some notice this session, too. Watson says he'd like to figure out a way that Austin can "legitimately clean up an area and increase its value without running people out."
You can't face a legislative session without transportation issues cropping up, and the city will stand behind the Texas Municipal League's endorsement of legislation that would boost state transportation funds for construction and maintenance projects. The League also echoes what appears to be a growing sentiment across the state: that cities be allowed to enter so-called design-build contracts, in which one company would be given authority to both design and build a highway. Proponents of such dual contracts consider them faster and more efficient than awarding highway contracts to several different firms, which is Texas' current practice. Newly sworn-in Gov. Rick Perry said recently that Texas should explore the design-build method used by 20 other states.
TML is also calling for legislation that would create and expand mass transit systems. Toward that end, the city opposes legislation that would use Capital Metro's quarter-cent sales tax for transportation projects outside of Austin (see "Mystery Train" in last week's Chronicle for more details on the mass transit front). "My priorities," said Council Member and Cap Metro board member Daryl Slusher, "would be to work toward protecting Capital Metro's quarter-cent tax. I'd also like to see the deregulation bill for municipally owned utilities stay in place. But overall," he said, "I feel a lot better going into this session than I did the last session."
Local environmentalist Robin Rather has another wish to add to the Legislature's to-do list: "My hope for this session is that they pass a sweeping open space bill that will provide state funding for preserving the Hill Country," she said. Her dream may not be too far afield. In a set of recommendations released in October, the Governor's Conservation Task Force said the state should create an incentives program to compensate private landowners who prevent their property from being developed. The task force also called for providing landowners with financial and technical assistance for habitat management. "If they can't see fit to get that done," said Rather, a Hill Country Conservancy board member, "I hope they just leave Austin alone. That would be a huge improvement over the last session."