Harris County and the city of Houston generally play more defense than offense when the Legislature is in session, so as a rule the fewer bills that get passed that affect them, the better.
County and city lobbyists said their efforts to scuttle unfunded mandates and bills that would have handcuffed local governments’ powers largely had succeeded.
On a broader level, however, Mayor Annise Parker and County Judge Ed Emmett were disappointed that some of their top priorities stalled.
“When we go to Austin, our goal is generally to play defense to keep things from happening that would have major consequences for Houston taxpayers, but we also try to promote a limited city agenda,” Parker said. “We made progress on some small pieces of legislation. Would I characterize it as a horrible session? No. A horrible session is when they do something really stupid to you, and there were some really stupid bills that we jumped on.”
Most notably, bills to cap local government revenues did not succeed, said the Texas Municipal League’s Bennett Sandlin and Texas Association of Counties’ Lonnie Hunt.
“Our mantra, more or less, is local control,” Hunt said.
Emmett said he was disappointed, but not surprised, the Legislature failed to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. He also decried a lack of progress on transportation.
“That’s the biggest worry we have, because if we’re going to realize our economic potential and our growth potential, we’re going to have to have transportation, and right now it’s not there,” he said.
Emmett and [Rep. Garnet] Coleman cheered large increases in mental health funding compared to the last biennial budget, including a $10 million pilot program to divert the mentally ill from the Harris County jail.
Given the Legislature’s “disgraceful” failure to restrict payday lending, or to ban texting while driving, Parker said she will move forward with local ordinances.
Parker echoed Emmett’s disappointment at the Legislature’s progress on big issues, ticking off education, transportation, immigration and pensions as areas in which she said there had been insufficient progress.
“It’s always a success for a city when the Legislature doesn’t do anything to harm that city,” she said, “but in terms of the major issues confronting our state … you can’t say this was a successful Legislative session.”
Given that at one point, the payday lending bill would have done little more than nullify local ordinances, failure to do anything wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Mayor Parker wanted to wait and see what the Lege would do before acting locally on the issue, so I’m glad to see her bring it up again. We did get the bike trail bill, which was very nice, and there was something in there about a bill to allow county clerks to accept financial disclosure forms and campaign finance reports electronically, which would be awesome if it leads to a makeover for the crappy interface we have now. Death to scanned PDFs, I say! We didn’t get Medicaid expansion, but we did at least get that.