Thus state Senator Kirk Watson, representative for District 14 and Travis County, assessed the bust that was the 81st legislative session and its results for bills "allowing local communities to make decisions on their own" regarding land use and transportation authority. "I misjudged it," admitted Watson, recounting his pre-session optimism at an Aug. 31 legislative recap luncheon hosted by Envision Central Texas, a nonprofit that advocates for regional growth planning.
The bipartisan panel of speakers included six Central Texas delegation members: Watson, a Democrat, Republican Sens. Glenn Hegar and Jeff Wentworth, and Democratic Reps. Valinda Bolton, Eddie Rodriguez, and Patrick Rose. While ECT had two advocacy groups working its twin legislative objectives, they admitted they'd found the fighting hard – against 150 years of Texas history, entrenched rural attitudes, and the state's distinct coolness toward notions coming out of Travis County. "Even new land-use planning around big new toll roads didn't pass," Watson observed in exasperation. As Wentworth pointed out, most of the "bills didn't even get hearings by committees, never mind passed," a structural problem he committed to work on.
In advocating for county land-use authority, ECT's goal is to provide stronger tools to control unplanned sprawl in the fringes around Austin and other cities. Yet "we should not be discouraged," said Craig Smith, chair of ECT's County Growth Management Working Group, because "the issue made more headway during this session than in any of the previous ones." Smith, a longtime board member of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, pointed to the lone related bill that did pass – SB 1299 (Watson, Rodriguez) which gave Travis, Harris, and Bexar counties greater authority over stormwater management in unincorporated areas. But even that, said District 51 Rep. Rodriguez, proved a surprisingly tough sell.
ECT learned that a more organized and powerful coalition will be needed to prevail – on long-term planning issues that, frankly, few find sexy. "In almost any room other than this one, when you start talking about land use, it is a sure cure for insomnia," joked District 47 Rep. Bolton. "Yet it's a huge, consequential issue facing our state." That extends to all resource planning for growth, she said, as we go from a state of about 24.3 million people to 35.8 million people by 2040. "Water is ultimately going to trump everything, because it's life-sustaining," asserted Bolton. "There's no 'bio-diesel' substitute for water."
Noting that the 82nd session starts in just 16 months, Smith outlined a next-session plan of attack for ECT:
• Get all counties to fully utilize the legal authority they have now. Many aren't, which made it harder to argue that counties need more authority. Drafting and sharing model ordinances (a Capital Area Council of Governments project) is one important way to get counties to update and strengthen their development regulations during the interim and to use every power they've got.
• Don't lead with land use. Outside urban areas, what sells best is advocating controls that "address real-life problems of transportation, safety, water quality, and drainage," said Smith. Don't frame the conversation so that it sounds primarily like a threat to private property rights.
• Pitch county powers as a way to protect the simpler life. "If people move [to the Hill Country] to look for a different lifestyle, they don't want it to change," said Watson. "We need planning tools to protect that way of life – to keep it rural."
• Build a better coalition in advance. After seeing that most Texas counties – other than the big five – didn't unite to champion the cause, ECT now believes a strong coalition of regional and statewide civic organizations (mostly in the big cities) must lead next-session advocacy for new legislation.
• Establish legislative interim committees. In both the House and Senate, off-season committees are being requested to study the problems and solutions related to growth in unincorporated areas. (House speaker Joe Straus reportedly has expressed support.)
• Keep the heat on. ECT called on everyone to stay involved in the issues during the interim. In particular, District 45 Rep. Rose said, advocates need to build common ground with the homebuilder associations: "It's something we've got to be big enough to do, to sit down and agree on what we can."
On the transportation side of regional planning, all rued the ultimate failure of "local option funding," a primary ECT legislative objective that cleared the Senate but failed to make it through the House in the waning, tumultuous days of the session.
"The state has abdicated its responsibility with regard to transportation," growled Watson, in a now-familiar criticism of the Texas Department of Transportation. "If you're not going to do your job, at least get out of the way, and let local communities make the decisions." Rodriguez echoed: "If we're not going to introduce legislation to raise the gas tax, at the very least, don't tie our hands." Wentworth endorsed their frustration, noting he'd offered to be the Senate sponsor of HB 942 to raise the gas tax, but to no avail.
On the plus side was the passage of legislation finally allocating money to the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund; however, both the state comptroller and TxDOT could still hold up the $190 million in funding that was authorized. John Langmore, chair of ECT's Transportation Funding Working Group, noted that all of the $6 billion in transportation funding scraped together for the next biennium is in essence borrowed money. "We bought ourselves two more years," he said, "But we still have no sustainable solution."
In Watson's opinion, transportation also needs strong interim work. "I anticipate another very rough session, because we've balanced the budget with federal stimulus dollars," and that "only replaces what they're taking away with the other hand." But ECT had no clear bullet points for an interim action plan. Rose advocated for consensus-building on the exact language of a bill that could pass: "Come to the next session with an agreed-to-bill." "Just do it!" urged Watson. "Hold all of us accountable for acting in a regional way."
More advice came from Bolton: Call your friends and relations in other parts of the state, and get them to lead on advocacy. Because one dynamic hasn't changed: "If it says Travis County or Central Texas on it, we start from a much rockier place."
For ECT's position papers on these issues, see www.envisioncentraltexas.org/resources.php.
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