Senate Boosts Gov. Greg Abbott's Mission to Rein in Local Governments

AUSTIN -- The Texas Senate on Wednesday gave a boost to Gov. Greg Abbott and his mission to rein in overreaching local governments, approving a handful of bills that would reel in the regulatory authority of cities and counties. Gov. Greg Abbott, who convened a special session this summer to address a number of conservative priorities, has said that the state must curb local governments that have gone too far in regulating everything from cell phone use to when homeowners can remove trees on their property.Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the hard-line Republicans in the Senate have worked to quickly approve Abbott's 20-point agenda for the 30-day special legislative session. On Wednesday, the chamber tentatively approved four measures that limit local authority. By the end of the day, the Senate had approved 18 bills in just the first week of the special legislative session, working late nights and through the weekend.Senate Bill 6 by Sen. Donna Campbell would force cities to allow property owners to vote before their homes are annexed. Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, said the bill was intended to ensure that property owners who purchased their homes outside of a city are not subjected to a "hostile takeover" by a jurisdiction that will increase their taxes."Forced annexation is never right," she said, adding that many wars in history have been the result of such actions. "It wasn't cool then, and it's not cool now."Democratic Sen. Jose Menendez, who filibustered a similar measure during the regular legislative session, said the bill would impede the growth of his hometown of San Antonio and hamstring city officials who need to raise additional tax revenue to fund increasing needs of the burgeoning population."Our cities need a way to pay for police officers, firefighters," he said.The measure was approved on a largely party-line vote of 19-12, with Republican Sen. Kel Seliger voting against the measure.Menendez echoed the concerns of 18 mayors, including Mike Rawlings of Dallas, who wrote Abbott a letter this month requesting to meet with him to share their misgivings about proposals to limit local authority. Ten of the mayors are scheduled to meet with Abbott in the next week, including the mayors of Arlington, Irving, Frisco and McKinney. None of the mayors of large cities like Dallas, Austin and Houston were included in meetings with Abbott.In their letter, the mayors told Abbott that their growing cities need the budgetary and policymaking flexibility to address residents' needs."To prepare for this rapid growth, we must continue to have the tools to manage our budgets, improve infrastructure, provide critical services like public safety and pass policies reflective of local resident priorities," the mayors wrote.The Senate also tentatively approved a bill by Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, that would prohibit cities from creating restrictions on cell phone use in vehicles. The Legislature passed a texting-while-driving ban by Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, during the regular legislative session. But Zaffirini said 45 cities that have ordinances stronger than the new state law ought to be allowed to continue enforcing those."This problem is so severe in Texas, we should be working to strengthen our distracted driving laws instead of working to weaken them," she said.Huffines, however, said his bill would eliminate a confusing "patchwork" of existing local regulations on cell phone use. "In the metroplex, there are many suburban areas where you have to drive over a variety of jurisdictions, and it's almost impossible to know what the laws are," Huffines said. Senate Bill 15 passed on a party line vote of 19-12.The chamber also approved a bill that would streamline the permitting process in local governments, creating new deadlines that cities and counties must meet to allow developers to move forward with construction more quickly.Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, said citizens deserve to know how long it will take permits to be approved. They also deserve transparency and consistency, she said."It will better protect small and medium businesses who do not have the resources to absorb any unreasonably long and or increased cost of securing any necessary local permits," Burton said.Opponents of the bill expressed worry that the quicker process would allow mistakes that could compromise public health and safety. The bill passed with a vote of 18-13.Senators also approved a measure that would prohibit cities from adopting ordinances that restrict what private property owners can do with trees on their land. Dallas is currently in the middle of rewriting its tree ordinance, which allows fines and other penalties for illegal tree felling.Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, said his bill is about protecting private property owners' rights."Real local control is allowing property owners to exercise their own property rights," he said.Critics of the bill said protecting trees limits the effect of global warming in cities and adds value to local properties."It adds a lot of beauty and value to a home," said Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen.The bill passed with a vote of 17-14.  Continue reading...

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