Austin Mayor: Texas Special Session Is 'War on Cities'

by | June 7, 2017

By Philip Jankowski

City leaders on Tuesday saw much of Gov. Greg Abbott's call for a special session as part of a continuing attack on Austin that rose from angry rhetoric about the left-leaning city to an all-out "war on cities," as Austin Mayor Steve Adler put it Tuesday.

Abbott's announcement will have state lawmakers return to the Capitol on July 18 to create laws that could take control of how the city levies property taxes and annexes land out of the hands of City Hall while scrapping local ordinances Abbott sees as government overreach.

"I admit to being a little dumbfounded when I heard what sounded to me like a call for a war against cities; a fight against individual liberties exposed at the ballot box," Adler said. "Instead of looking at a future ... the governor's special call looks to the past."

The governor, who signed a bill last month banning so-called sanctuary cities in response to Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez's new policy on immigrant detention requests, has made it a habit in recent months to bash Austin. On Monday night in Belton, he announced he had prevented the Austin liberals' efforts to "Californiaize the Lone Star State."

"As you leave Austin and start heading north, you start feeling different," Abbott told the audience at a dinner hosted by the Bell County Republican Party. "Once you cross the Travis County line, it starts smelling different. And you know what that fragrance is? Freedom. It's the smell of freedom that does not exist in Austin, Texas."

Adler said that Abbott's comments gave him pause, noting that Austin is ahead of the state.

"The air in Austin is pretty sweet with an unemployment rate that is a point lower than the state, a lower violent crime rate than the state, with the highest rates of patents and venture capital in the state," Adler said. "And the air is sweet with tacos."

City leaders and staffers who had breathed a sigh of relief when the regular legislative session ended May 29 with no property tax reform bill or annexation bills passed can now resume biting their fingernails. Abbott named those two among his 20 items to be considered in the special session.

If previously floated bills on those issues re-emerge, voters would gain more power over property tax rates and annexations.

The property tax roll-back Senate Bill 2 would require an election if a municipality opts to raise property taxes more than 5 percent. Opponents of the bill in urban centers have said that it would jeopardize their ability to fund public safety agencies.

"Despite the fact that this is a notably safe, prosperous and fiscally sound community, the leaders of state government appear determined to create a crisis that will make it harder for us to meet the needs of our residents and our workforce," Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said Tuesday in a news release. "While we are saddened, we are not surprised, and we will continue to take steps to ensure that the will and the values of Travis County residents are respected and the needs of our community are met."

An annexation bill will likely resemble Senate Bill 715, authored by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels. It requires a city to get a majority vote of residents in areas marked for annexation to add that land to the city's limits. Under current law, a city can each year annex up to 10 percent of its incorporated land from its extra territorial jurisdiction.

Many city leaders from across the state oppose putting the annexations in the hands of voters because it will lead to people benefiting from being near an urban area without contributing to the tax base.

"So many of the things listed here are attacks on Austin, not just in the traditional Austin-bashing sense, but on cities generally because we pose a threat in the long term," Council Member Greg Casar said.

Ordinances like Austin's gender-neutral bathroom ordinance, tree ordinance and law allowing only hands-free cellphone use while driving could be up for the chopping block.

Abbott wants the statewide ban on texting while driving to override Austin's hands-free ordinance, which prevents cellphone use of nearly all forms while driving, except when stopped.

Going to the state ban would continue to disallow sending messages while driving, whether through a text messaging platform or other app, but it would allow people to interact with their phone if operating a GPS or music program. And talking on the phone could resume while behind the wheel.

Another of Abbott's items would prevent cities from regulating what property owners do with trees on their private land. Austin's ordinance requires builders to work around large "heritage" trees.

A bathroom ban could also affect a city ordinance that requires gender-neutral signs to be placed on single-occupant restrooms at businesses.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan called Abbott's apparent attack on Austin through a special session a "joke."

"When you are a scapegoat for many, many years, it is a joke," Flannigan said. "The idea that one of the most successful cities in the nation is treated as a failure is a laughing stock."

(c)2017 Austin American-Statesman, Texas