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State bills target cities

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

Consultant: Legislature more willing to tinker with local control

The 83rd Texas Legislature may have filed fewer bills overall than the legislatures of the past three bienniums, but more of those bills were city-related than ever before, a consultant told Denton leaders this week.

Brandon Aghamalian, of Austin-based Focused Advocacy, told the Denton City Council during a workshop session this week that the Legislature showed an increased willingness this year to tinker with local control. About 1,700 of the 6,061 bills filed could have affected city authority, he said.

“And, as a full-service city, Denton is exposed to a lot more risk,” Aghamalian said.

In other words, any new laws that would affect utilities and landfills could affect Denton, too, particularly when compared to other cities that have investor-owned or other public utility providers.

Some big issues commanded the Legislature’s attention and will ultimately affect cities, Aghamalian said.

For example, about $450 million was allocated to restore roads in energy-producing counties, another $10 million was allocated to help the homeless, and $15.5 million was restored for local parks funding. The mixed-beverage tax was also restored with a provision in House Bill 3572 that would make sure it couldn’t be zeroed out again, Aghamalian said.

When the Legislature provided for $2 billion in funding for new water projects — which still requires Texas voters to approve in a constitutional election this November — it also provided for regional planning, and that’s good for cities, Aghamalian said.

According to Snapper Carr, also with Focused Advocacy, key new laws for cities included reforms to the property tax appraisal dispute process in HB 585 and to the event trust fund in Senate Bill 1678, which helps North Texas cities pay for events like the Super Bowl.

One new law allows cities to hold public meetings with participation of some members via video-conferencing, although Carr was circumspect about it.

“I’d caution that I would not want to be one of the first cities to use this,” he said.

Cities were also able to stop laws that would have pre-empted local control. In addition to the well-publicized fight over predatory lending that included failed attempts at pre-empting local regulation, bills that would have pre-empted tree ordinances, compost sales and permit vesting were also defeated.

Cities helped defeat a bill that would have made textbooks exempt from sales tax, something that could have a major impact on cities, like Denton, that are home to universities, Carr said.

The city also helped defeat HB 2828, he said.

Referred to the House Committee on Energy Resources, HB 2828 was a bill aimed at Grand Prairie, Fort Worth, Southlake and other cities that would have pre-empted the ability to write ordinances regulating natural gas pipelines. It was moving through the Legislature when Denton officials and others weighed in, Carr said.

“[It was] good fortune to have your city attorney come down the day after the hearing in the house committee,” he said.

The other cities participated, too, Carr said, but Denton was able to meet with Texas Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Granbury, who is the committee chairman.

“Anita [Burgess, city attorney] and Lindsey [Baker, public relations officer] explained some of the impacts locally, and that went a long way in assuring that bill never got a vote,” Carr said. “I would garner to say that had it been voted on the day it had a hearing, it would have passed out with probably only two ‘no’ votes.”

Carr told the council that he believed there would be an interim study to revisit the issue and see whether the state has a role.

Consultants and staff with Denton Municipal Electric continue to monitor the ongoing controversy with Austin Energy, which has raised rates to cover some of its investments in renewable energy.

The Legislature has looked at the matter in ways that could threaten local control of municipal-owned utilities, but so far nothing has materialized, Carr said.

Over the past couple of sessions, Carr told the city the advocacy group has noticed that the pace of the Legislature’s work has increased. In order to be proactive with a legislative agenda, even to proactively defeat a bill, a group’s work and due diligence needs to be done in advance, he said.

“You used to, almost, could wait until January and kind of start that process and the members would play an integral role in helping you sort that all out,” Carr said. “They really expect, now, in the process, that you have the work done well in advance.”

To have a realistic chance at being successful, Carr said the group recommends that the city have its legislative agenda for the 84th biennium in 2015 done by September 2014, with drafting of any bills done by October 2014.

Carr also advised the city to watch the work being done with the interim committees, which begins in January.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.