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Denton tallies legislative priorities

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

City wants lobbying to focus on local control of budget, zoning, DME

Members of the Denton City Council want a few priorities added to the city’s legislative agenda, a directive that came after being briefed this week on the upcoming biennium.

Council members are looking for efforts to reform payday lending practices, to retain local control over natural gas drilling and production, and to re-establish local authority following an unfavorable state court decision on vested rights earlier this year.

The city staff and lobbyists told the council during a workshop Tuesday that they are already trying to analyze legislation and prepare for the biennium.

The 83rd regular session of the Texas Legislature begins Jan. 8, but legislators have been pre-filing bills since Nov. 12.

Redistricting and the odd election schedule brought near historic levels of turnover to both the Texas House and Senate, according to Brandon Aghamalian, lobbyist with Focused Advocacy, which lobbies for the city at the state level. More than 75 members of both houses are starting either as freshman or sophomore legislators. Many of them have not come up through the ranks serving on city councils or school boards, Aghamalian said.

“We’ll see what that leads us to,” he said.

Overall, Texas cities will need to be defensive during the upcoming session, he said.

Aghamalian anticipated some give-and-take between the Legislature and the governor. Legislative leaders have said publicly that the state needs to tackle school funding and paying for water and transportation projects. Meanwhile, he said, Gov. Rick Perry has been touting “red meat” issues, such as Transportation Security Administration screenings, school vouchers and anti-abortion initiatives.

But it is the sunset bills for the Texas Ethics Commission, the Public Utilities Commission and Texas Railroad Commission — all up for reauthorization — that pose the most danger for cities and municipal-owned utilities, Aghamalian said.

“All the issues are germane and lots of damage can be done on the floor with amendments,” he said.

Focused Advocacy and the city staff recommended that Denton’s top priority issues be to preserve local budgeting authority and revenue sources, local control of zoning and land use planning and local control of Denton Municipal Electric.

In past legislative sessions, legislators have proposed regulating property appraisals or otherwise capping the amount of property taxes that local governments can collect. For the 83rd biennium, Denton would, along with other cities, oppose any effort to restrict local government revenues, unless they come with supplementary money from the state.

Several legislative trends also threaten cities with proposals that shore up vested rights and require landowners be compensated for zoning or regulatory changes. Denton and other cities are expected to advocate preserving municipal authority to manage growth, and without such burdens on local taxpayers.

Bills were introduced in the last session to deregulate municipal-owned utilities. The city would oppose legislation that would take away local control of DME.

Focused Advocacy and the staff also recommended a slate of general priorities in several categories, including revenue and taxation, land use and resources, utilities, transportation and public safety. Other government priorities would include advocating for legislation that is helpful to the University of North Texas, Texas Woman’s University and the Denton school district.

Council member Kevin Roden told the staff and lobbyists, given the council’s struggle to regulate natural gas drilling and production, legislation preserving that local control should be a priority. The item was included as part of Denton’s general legislative agenda, relating to the city’s authority to regulate for health and safety, said city staff member Lindsey Baker.

Council member Dalton Gregory asked whether the city could recover some authority lost in the recent state court decision on vested rights in Harper Park Two vs. City of Austin.

“That has done a great deal to restrict cities,” Gregory said.

In the case, a developer sued Austin over a multi-use project, claiming it had vested rights in development rules in place when it applied for the parcel in 1985. Although the city argued current development rules applied, the court sided with the developer and agreed the company had vested rights from more than 25 years ago.

Since then, Denton adopted an ordinance, in advance of the rest of its rewrites for natural gas drilling and production, that established a procedure for a developer, including energy operators, to claim vested rights.

City attorney Anita Burgess said that the staff had discussed the matter, perhaps proposing legislation that would re-establish authority relating to gas drilling. But lobbying efforts could include other development rights, Burgess said.

Gregory also asked whether there would be reform legislation for payday and title lending.

“Or are they going to try to restrict cities from doing that?” Gregory said.

Dallas, Austin and San Antonio have all tried, through zoning authority, to limit the presence of payday and title lending businesses. Faith and nonprofit groups have criticized the state for its lax rules, which have lead to predatory lending practices.

The Consumer Service Alliance of Texas, an industry trade group, has sued Dallas and Austin over their ordinances.

Aghamalian said he believed several legislators would be working on that, including Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland.

However, he cautioned the City Council that if the Legislature does do some work to shore up rules for payday lending, it may also pre-empt cities from being able to regulate the businesses.

This may be the one time he would welcome pre-emption, Gregory said.

“If it’s adequate protection,” he said.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is