Council Watch: Bills to Pay
Some city insiders, recalling the passage of the repealed pro-developer House Bill 1704 two years ago, say they aren't expecting the 77th Legislature to throw Austin as many punches as it has in sessions past. Still, the city's official legislative program, passed by City Council last Thursday, anticipates an almost-all-defensive battle.
"Protecting the city's authority is the main point this legislative session," says city governmental relations officer John Hrncir, who drafted the program from input by all the city departments. "There are bills out there already filed that could have an negative impact. We'll have to see how it plays out."
The program's key points follow a now-familiar line: trying to maintain the city's regulatory authority over public utilities and land-use issues like annexation and development, while keeping a wary eye out for attacks on other fronts.
As in past years, a host of bills with the potential to erode the city's existing powers to regulate land use have already been filed. HB 25, for instance, introduced by Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, would significantly limit the city's ability to enforce regulations in its extraterritorial jurisdiction. Rep. Rick Green's HB 573 would require cities to pay taxes on public property they owns in counties where less than 20% of the city is located, a measure which Hrncir speculates is aimed specifically at Austin and preserves the city owns in Hays County, where much of the Dripping Springs Republican's district is located. If HB 573 were passed, Austin would have to pay taxes to Hays County on city land it has purchased there; that land is currently exempt from taxation.
Given the current dereg debacle in California, utility deregulation may not be the hot issue it was last session. However, the city's legislative program calls for monitoring further dereg legislation as it arises, and taking "appropriate action on any legislation to protect the City's interests" on legislation that could "adversely affect Austin Energy or its customers." Under the provisions of electric dereg bill SB7, adopted in the 76th Legislature, the city can still opt out of deregulating its electric utility, rather than having Austin Energy compete with private companies.
Though the program the council passed keeps its focus on fighting erosion of the city's powers, it does make a few forays into new territory. The city will work, albeit belatedly, to fight the negative effects of growth, such as rising property values, by asking the Legislature to do an interim study on gentrification in "revitalized" areas. The council also resolved to endorse the legislative agenda of the Community Action Network, whose efforts concentrate largely on increasing funding for childcare and affordable housing programs.
The city's best hope of moving beyond its uneasy holding pattern may lie in rallying other cities as the Lege extends "Austin-bashing"-style legislation across the state. The legislative program of the Texas Municipal League closely echoes Austin's, promising to "vigorously oppose any legislation that would erode the authority of Texas cities to govern their own local affairs."
"Other cities are having the same kind of problems now [as Austin]," Hrncir says. "We have more support from other cities than we had, say, 10 years ago."
This week, after their extended holiday break, which seems to have dragged on through the first couple of meetings of the year, council will return to a meatier agenda. Among other things, they'll vote on a proposed settlement with Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI to you and me) that would pay the trash company to move its recycling facility off Winnebago Lane, where it was moved just a few years ago from its former location on Bolm Road. Neighbors of the new facility were incensed that the city allowed BFI to locate it in their midst, after the company was admonished not to move into another residential neighborhood when it was forced out of its first location. The settlement, while expensive for the city, should push BFI outside the city limits and off the council's agenda.
The council is also slated to vote on what to do with the money in Capital Metro's budget that would have been spent on light rail. After light rail was voted down last November, the money from Cap Metro's quarter-cent tax for light rail will return to the jurisdictions, and go to "projects approved by the voters," says Council Member and CAMPO board member (and light rail supporter) Daryl Slusher.
Another vote before the council this week would direct the city manager to start looking around for a way to fund the much-troubled and oft-broke Austin Music Network, back on the public sugar-teat again after a failed attempt to go commercial.