Why Austin Gets Screwed

Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos filibusters while Gary Bradley watches from the gallery.
Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos filibusters while Gary Bradley watches from the gallery. (Photo By Alan Pogue)

For more than a decade, Capitol watchers have speculated on why Austin is targeted by legislators attempting to replace city ordinances with state law. Some of the theories:

  • Austin is envied because Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar made it -- instead of Houston -- the capital.

  • Voters in Austin are so liberal they offend legislators from conservative towns that are more representative of the state.

  • Legislators are offended because they get parking tickets here, when in decades past, city police wouldn't consider ticketing a car with state official plates.

  • Legislators take a special interest in the city because it is their second home.

    Some have even blamed it on Willie -- suggesting that his loose living, renegade image, and love of cannabis offend conservative legislators. In fact, though, Austin is a target because the City Council has attempted to regulate the city's environment, and in doing so, direct growth. Developers who oppose that regulation have money to hire lobbyists and contribute to legislators. More than ideology, it's money that drives anti-Austin legislation.

    Consider state rep Ron Lewis, D-Mauriceville, who has no clearly identified political ideology. Yet if there is any truth in the legislative axiom, "whoring is boring," Lewis lives a life of sheer boredom. The Southeast Texas rep is well-known for his anti-Austin bills -- from a bill that would have required cities identified by narrowly defined criteria (so narrow to include only Austin) to hold elections in order to set City Council salaries, to the legislation that allowed Gary Bradley's Circle C development southwest of Austin to escape annexation and define itself as an odd, hybrid municipality.

    The two bills fall into the two main categories of legislation often aimed at Austin: entertainment bills and market-driven bills. Entertainment bills are commonplace; if enough of them are filed they can distract the city's lobbying team from the market-driven bills that usually have to do with real estate. Lewis carries both.

    "Is it Austin-bashing when I ask the public to vote on what their city council members' salaries are?" Lewis asked when he filed his bill to limit salaries of Austin City Council members. "Is Austin scared to allow that?" That bill was pure diversion, all winks and nods, and had no chance of passing.

    But Lewis was serious about legislation he carried to benefit Austin developers, and as recently as last session he was working on behalf of Bradley. "Bring me a plan on how you're going to solve the illegalities committed by going out and violating the intent of state law and annexing Circle C," Lewis said at the start of the 1999 session. "There's nothing fair about developing in Austin, Texas. Absolutely nothing."

    Lewis aside, it is not as if Bradley has gone unrepresented in the Lege. In the 1995 session, Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos' 20-hour filibuster failed to kill the bill that created the Southwest Travis County Water District to govern Bradley's Circle C development in the Barton Creek watershed. Gov. George Bush signed it and it remained in place until it was thrown out by a state court in 1997.

    If there is any good news, it could be that the anti-Austin movement might have run its course (and also that Lewis' work on behalf of the Bush presidential campaign has alienated many Democrats in Lewis' heavily Democratic district). Developers have gotten much of what they want, and the property-rights movement they use for cover might have peaked last session, with the passage of House Bill 1704. The bill, sponsored by Seguin Republican Ed Kuempel, allows developers to circumvent ordinances the Austin City Council passed to protect the environment. It is HB 1704 that Stratus Properties is using to coerce the city to trade land that is to be developed in the Barton Creek watershed for rights to develop Mueller Airport. When HB 1704 passed by a 140-5 House vote, only one state rep -- Scott Hochberg of Houston -- joined the Travis County delegation to vote against it.

    Gracious in victory, Stratus CEO Beau Armstrong says he doesn't have much of a legislative agenda this session.

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