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May 15th, 2019:

A tale of screwed cities

That’s my unofficial title for this legislative session.

The interest group representing Texas cities used to be one of the most powerful legislative forces at the Capitol. This session, it has become the GOP’s most prominent adversary.

Its members have been harangued at hearings. Targeted by a proposed ban on “taxpayer-funded lobbying.” And seen multiple proposals sail ahead over its protests.

When, around March, one mayor inquired about the reasoning for a controversial provision in a property tax bill, he said an advisor to Gov. Greg Abbott suggested, “you reap what you sow.”

The message was clear, said McKinney Mayor George Fuller: Local officials had been obstructionists in the past.

Though the antagonistic relationship between Texas cities and the state has been building for years, this session has reached the fever pitch of all out legislative assault, said Austin Mayor Steve Adler, in April. Typically, the Texas Municipal League tracks bills it opposes that are gaining momentum in the Legislature. This session, the group had amassed more than 150.

Among them, was a cable franchise fees bill authored by state Rep. Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and chair of the powerful State Affairs Committee. After the Texas Municipal League warned its members the proposal could cut into cities’ revenue, Phelan had a concise response for the group, which represents 1,156 of Texas’ roughly 1,200 cities.

“When you are in a hole — you should stop digging,” Phelan recommended, in an email obtained by The Texas Tribune.

In an interview, Phelan said he harbored no animus toward the organization, but took umbrage with its opposition to legislation his constituents want. The sentiment is widely-shared in the Legislature, Phelan said, as evidenced by the support the bills on taxpayer-funded lobbying and franchise fees have garnered.

“Those bills have never gotten out of committee before,” he said. The Texas Municipal League represents “their own interests and we are representing the taxpayers.”

“I think there’s a disconnect sometimes,” he added.

The group’s leaders see a different trend. They say model legislation with an anti-city bent has been exported from conservative think tanks and taken root at statehouses across the country. At the same time, Republican strongholds have shifted to the suburbs, making progressive city leaders convenient whipping boys for politicians from the president on down.

There’s more, so go read the rest. It really does boil down to two things. One is the Republicans’ refusal to address our tax system in a meaningful way. There are things we could do to make the property tax system more equitable. There are things we could do with sales taxes to bring in more revenue in a way that wouldn’t be so regressive. Our whole tax system is a byzantine mess, but the only thing that we’re allowed to talk about is cutting property taxes. This session that means putting the screws to cities, even though local property taxes aren’t driving the growth of property tax collections. The Republicans are looking for a political solution, and cities are a convenient target.

Which leads to point two: Cities are liberal and Democratic, so it’s a twofer for state Republicans to stick it to them. And don’t think that having a Republican mayor would change anything:

“I understand the political atmosphere to reduce taxes; there’s no one that would be more aligned with that than I am,” said El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a former Republican state lawmaker. “But I’m also trying to deal with basics. I say I’m the mayor of public safety, potholes, and parks.”

El Paso’s property values — and so its tax base — is growing at a slower clip than other parts of the state, he said. Though the factors differ from city to city, each municipality has different needs and budgets, and local leaders say they are unaccounted for under a blanket property tax reform policy.

“The frustration is that we are grouped, coupled with across-the-board perceptions,” Margo said.

That’s because your Republican former colleagues don’t care about any of that, Mayor Margo. The only way forward here is to vote them out.

Federal lawsuit filed over homeless feeding ordinance

I’m kind of surprised that this hadn’t been filed before now.

On a recent evening in April, a few dozen people experiencing homelessness lined up outside Central Library in downtown Houston for a free — and illegal — meal of vegetarian chili, macaroni, rice and fruit salad. Volunteers with Food Not Bombs, an international organization with hundreds of local chapters, often serve free dinner here, violating a local ordinance against publicly feeding groups of people without city permission.

Houston’s so-called charitable-feeding ordinance was enacted in 2012 and allows groups and individuals to feed up to five homeless people, no strings attached. To feed more, though, you must register with the city — or face fines up to $2,000 and a misdemeanor charge for violating the Houston Code of Ordinances. Additionally, would-be do-gooders have to take a food handling training class; provide the proposed schedule, time and location of the ad-hoc soup kitchen; detail the food being served; and fill out an online form to receive permission from the city to give food in public.

On Monday, activists filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the ordinance on First Amendment grounds. Food Not Bombs and three of its members are plaintiffs in the suit, filed against the City of Houston in the U.S. Southern District of Texas. The lawsuit accuses the city of infringing on freedom of speech and religious liberties of the anti-war, food-sharing activists. It asks Houston to overthrow the ban and seeks unspecified monetary damages.

The ordinance infringes on “freedom of association” and “political organizing” and is “unconstitutionally vague,” the lawsuit argues. It cites at least 19 pro-food-sharing verses from the Bible. Randall Kallinen, who has filed numerous civil rights lawsuits in Houston, is representing the activists. In interviews with the Observer, he described the ordinance as “totally ridiculous” and part of an effort to “get the homeless out of town.”

While the lawsuit adds to pressure against Houston, the effort to overturn the city’s ban is not new. A parallel lawsuit also involving Kallinen has been floundering in state district court since 2017, and over 75,000 people have signed an online petition calling for an end to the “cruel” ordinance.

See here for some more on the state court lawsuit. A copy of this lawsuit is embedded in the story, and it’s something else. I like to make I Am Not A Lawyer jokes, but I can read legal briefs and motions and generally understand what they’re getting at. This one is in a way a lot easier to read because there’s almost no legal language in it. I mean, there’s a page quoting from the Food Not Bombs website. There’s more than two pages quoting bible verses, and three pages listing organizations that they say oppose the law. The legal arguments section does cite a couple of court cases, but it never quotes anything from the cited decisions, which leaves one to wonder just how those decisions apply to the case at hand.

Most of the arguments they make themselves have to do with the vagueness of the term “those in need” from the ordinance’s definition of “charitable food service”, which is “providing food without charge, payment or other compensation to benefit those in need at an outdoor location not owned, leased or controlled by the individual or organization providing the food.” I mean, I was a math major and I Am Not A Lawyer, but that seems pretty straightforward to me. Their point seems to be that an organization that was handing out food (at an outdoor location not owned, leased or controlled by the individual or organization providing the food) to random passersby would not be in violation of the law. Maybe that could work as a theoretical construct, but I have a hard time imagining it happening in real life.

The writer of this story is clearly sympathetic to the plaintiffs. I get that, but even the lightest critical analysis of the lawsuit shows the problems with it. I’m not sure how the reader is served by that omission. We’ll see what the court makes of this, but color me skeptical.

We could have had an excise tax on e-cigarettes

But then Greg Abbott got involved.

At the urging of the nation’s biggest tobacco company, Gov. Greg Abbott launched a late-hour push to change Texas legislation creating a 10% state retail excise tax on e-cigarette and vapor smoking products.

That bill died in House action Thursday night due to a legislative maneuver, known as a point of order, offered by Republican Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford. It has no realistic chance of revival because of legislative deadlines and the mandate that tax measures originate in the House, not the Senate.

Stickland said Friday his aides spotted the technical error and he pointed it out in the House out of concern about ladling taxes on e-cigarettes and vape products.

“A lot of people have used e-cigarettes to quit other bad habits,” Stickland said Friday. “It’s just a freedom issue for me. I think that taxes are theft.”

After the bill’s death, Dallas Democrat Nathan Johnson, the author of the Senate version of the bill, said in a text message: “I’m disappointed, to say the least. This bill would protect kids and save public costs. It had overwhelming support in the House.”

Critics said earlier that Abbott’s late move — targeting a bill touted as deterring youths from buying addictive e-cigs — would effectively ease taxation of products such as Juul pods that concentrate nicotine in not much liquid.

[…]

Abbott’s suggested changes would have scrapped a proposed first-in-the-nation retail tax predicted to generate about $20 million a year for public education. Instead, Texas would tax vape products at the wholesale level at five cents per milliliter of “consumable liquid solution.”

Four states — Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana and North Carolina — tax vape products at five cents per milliliter, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, with New Jersey and West Virginia levying higher rates.

The Abbott-backed changes also would have put a $1 per ounce tax on every initial sale of heated tobacco products, which produce an inhalable aerosol primarily by heating, not burning, tobacco. The FDA authorized U.S. sales of the products, made by Philip Morris International, late last month. Corey Henry of Philip Morris International said in an email that the product will be commercialized by Altria in the U.S. through a licensing agreement.

Proceeds from the double-barreled tax were to help fund public schools.

Rob Crane, an Ohio State University physician who heads the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, said in an email that the resulting e-cig tax would have been so light, it would make “no difference” to children or adults considering purchases of such nicotine delivery products.

The first link in the story gives some background on the bill, as it was and what it was intended for. I confess, I wasn’t aware of any of this before I read the story, so I don’t have much to add beyond what you can read at the two links. Mostly, this is a reminder of why it’s hard to pass bills in the Lege. Time is against you, there are many veto points, and the closer you get to the end of the session the easier it is kill things. All you can do is note how far you got this time, and vow to try again in two years.