Lege makes an anti-city push, nixes a bill limiting police filming, the Senate passes its budget, and more...
Running Out of Local Options
Minorities. Foreigners. Anyone who's not born again. It seems the Texas Legislature has a long list of targets, but this session it's added one more to the list: local government. Sure, Austinites are used to the competitive sport of Austin-bashing, but now it's hitting traditional Republican heartlands like Denton. Last year, voters passed a fracking ban within city limits, and this was expected to be the first of a wave of local control. But on April 14 the House started debating House Bill 40, making oil and gas regulations "the exclusive jurisdiction of the state." Due to a computer glitch, the bill had to be sent back to committee, but is expected back in the chamber soon.
This is one of a slate of anti-city bills that has the Texas Municipal League sending up the red flag. There's Senate Bill 267 by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, which lets landlords continue to reject renters who receive a government housing subsidy, such as Section 8. Seemingly a clear response to Austin's contentious source of income discrimination ordinance (see "Housing Ordinance Back in Effect – For Now," March 18), that measure has passed out of the Senate. Then there's SB 182 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, requiring property-wealthy cities to go before voters before enacting any tax increase (ask any school district how easy that is); HB 1442 by Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, targeting heritage tree ordinances; and a seemingly endless torrent of bills blocking local regulation of firearms or pollution.
There is one sign of détente, with the Lege seemingly abandoning its inexplicable assault on the Austin bag ban. This session, there were two measures to overturn the city's rule against providing free, single-use paper or plastic bags to shoppers (HB 1939 by Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, and SB 1550 by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood). Both seem to be enduring the long, slow death of being referred to committee without a hearing.
Lights, Camera, Law
A small victory for common sense: Remember HB 2918 by Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas? The bill limiting the ability of citizens to video the police? A bill so ill-conceived that we made it a "Bill of the Week" (March 27)? Well, after national furor about civil liberties, Villalba has announced he will not ask for a committee hearing, effectively killing the measure. It was originally pushed by the Dallas Police Association and the Texas Municipal Police Association, who wanted an effective 25-foot cordon around incidents, but now the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas has publicly stated that, while they appreciate Villalba's efforts, the bill is not needed. This reversal seemed almost inevitable, after cop-watch groups and civil liberties activists of all political stripes condemned its overreach. And in the wake of graphic footage of the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina, Villalba's bill became politically toxic.
That could be good news for SB 158 by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, which creates a uniform policy for Texas cops wearing body cameras while on duty. But there's another local control bill pending, one that could limit the ability of law enforcement to collect video themselves. On April 13, the Senate Transportation Committee heard Sen. Hall's SB 714, banning red light cameras at intersections. Because apparently, in Texas, if a cop doesn't see you cause an accident, it didn't happen.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Talk to Molly White
OK, the session is still going, but we're calling the winner for Texas Monthly's worst legislator of 2015 for Rep. Molly White, R-Belton. The Temple Daily Telegram reports that, when Salado resident Frank Carlson visited White's Capitol office to discuss LGBT rights, her staff told him to "drop your literature off and leave" and that he "needed to meet with individuals that shared [his] viewpoint" because trying to shift White's deeply held religious beliefs would be a "waste of time." Well, maybe we're being harsh. After all, can a state rep be blamed for her staff's behavior? Eh. Considering this is the same White currently carrying HB 2553, a Texas version of the Indiana religious intolerance (sorry, religious freedom) bill, we're not too surprised – especially considering this is the same White who demanded that Muslims visiting her office "renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws" (see "Rep. Molly White Not Quite Sure Who's an American," Jan. 29). We're also not expecting there to be any political repercussions. In 2007, then-Sen. Dan Patrick boycotted the first ever prayer by a Muslim cleric in the Senate. Now he's lieutenant governor, so we're expecting White to declare for president any day now.
Another business group sending a strong message of tolerance to the Lege: Texas Competes, which includes major employers like Southwest Airlines, Dell, and Samsung, and iconic brands like the Alamo Drafthouse and SXSW, has pledged a commitment to LGBT equality – an implicit push back against pending religious intolerance bills... The Senate approved its draft $211 billion budget on April 14 by a 30-1 vote (Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, voted no). Now Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and House Ways & Means Committee Chair Dennis Bonnen are posturing over whose budget has the biggest tax cuts... The House Public Education Committee began a monster hearing on HB 1759, Chair Jimmie Don Aycock's proposal for a partial school finance fix... HB 40 wasn't the only bill pulled because of a computer glitch: HB 910, the open carry gun bill, was also sent back to committee.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described SB 158 as requiring all Texas cops to wear body cameras. The Chronicle regrets the error.