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Texas Municipal League

Supreme Court hears bag ban arguments

Hoping for the best, but not really expecting it.

In the case Laredo Merchants Association v. The City of Laredo, lawyers spent almost an hour arguing whether Laredo’s 2015 ban was illegal under state law. If the Republican-led court rules against the city, bag bans across the state could be deemed illegal.

The city of Laredo’s lawyer, former Supreme Court justice Dale Wainwright, argued single-use bags are not garbage, so they are not covered by the several lines of state law that the case hinges on. The code says local governments may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

The arguments made Thursday mirrored those in lower courts, where the case was originally decided in favor of Laredo before an appeals court overturned the verdict by a 2-1 margin. The city then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

[…]

The oral arguments represent the last public action taken on the case, but a decision by the Supreme Court could still be a long way away. The court has discretion over the timeframe for a verdict, and previous cases have taken anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of years to resolve.

See here for some background. An earlier Trib story that previewed the case had some further details.

The case hinges on only a few lines of the Texas Health and Safety Code, specifically section 361.0961, which states local governments may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” In the lower courts, arguments focused on the specifics of the law, including the definitions of “container or package” and “solid waste management.”

Attorney Christy Drake-Adams filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Texas Municipal League and the Texas City Attorneys Association supporting the city of Laredo and arguing that siding with the merchants would represent a swift departure from Texas’ history of supporting local governments.

“There just seems to be a trend that the state wants to consolidate power in the state’s hands,” Drake-Adams said. “They don’t want the federal government telling them what to do, and yet they want to tell local governments what to do.”

Drake-Adams also said this case could create a dangerous precedent of strict, uniform regulations on cities.

“Extreme uniformity and regulation fails to address diverse local concerns,” Drake-Adams said. “Texas is a great example of why that can’t work. A state as large and diverse geographically as Texas, that simply can’t work.”

Supporters of the merchants’ case are arguing that statewide enforcement of the law should overrule any local ordinances, and the inconsistent local laws like the plastic bag bans seen in cities across Texas cause unnecessary strain on small businesses.

“Inconsistent local ordinances harm the sales of affected retailers, force the layoff of employees, deprive retailers of their existing inventory of bags, and impose an expensive and complex requirement on multisite retailers to comply with varying ordinances across the state,” wrote Edward Burbach in a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Texas Retailers Association in support of the merchants.

Remember, the goal here as expressed by Ken Paxton and abetted by Greg Abbott is to kill off all local bag laws, on the way to generally bringing cities to heel under the state. And yeah, we’re hoping the Supreme Court will stop them. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the law in question can – someday – be easily modified to fix the flaw that the pro-bag-litter faction is exploiting. That would require winning some elections first, of course. But at least it gives us something to aim for.

War on local control update

Example one:

Sen. Craig Estes’ Senate Bill 18 would require cities and counties to get voter approval if they plan to spend a certain amount more than they did in a previous year. His bill ties such an election trigger to inflation and statewide population growth.

“You ask people about that and they generally think that’s a good thing,” the Wichita Falls Republican said Friday.

But local government officials and advocates for municipal government say the measure will hinder their ability to afford services that residents expect. They also say it will make it hard to keep up with population growth — especially in booming suburbs growing much faster than the state as a whole.

“We’re planning our budgets multiple years in the future because we’ve got so many capital projects that we can’t just look at budgets from year to year,” said Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney, whose North Texas city grew almost four times as fast as Texas did from 2015 to 2016.

Estes’ bill, plus others aimed at giving voters more frequent say over their property tax rates, are on the docket for Senate committees this weekend. They fall in line with several items on Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session call that seek to limit powers cities and counties have long exercised. Other bills being considered Saturday and Sunday would change how and when municipalities regulate land use and annex land outside their borders.

State leaders say they are trying to both respond to Texans’ complaints about rising property tax bills and protect landowners’ rights from local regulations. But local elected officials say lawmakers and top state leaders are unfairly portraying cities and counties as irresponsible stewards of taxpayer money to score political points with voters ahead of next year’s primaries.

Such tensions highlight a growing divide over how much say city and county officials should have over local matters. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the proposed spending cap is another example of lawmakers trying to control officials who are elected to represent Texans at the local level.

“It certainly flies in the face of the very important democratic principle that we’ve adhered to for centuries in self governance,” Nirenberg said.

[…]

Estes couldn’t point to any examples of cities or counties dramatically increasing their spending in recent years. He said his office is currently collecting data from local governments on it. And he said he’s open to tweaking provisions in his bill as it moves through the Legislature.

But he shrugged off the notion that the state shouldn’t be telling local governments what to do. He said counties are extensions of state government, and that cities “reside in the state.”

“I don’t think that’s really an issue, that we don’t have any jurisdiction in what they’re doing,” he said. “We do.”

Don’t bother making the analogy to states and the country, because that’s Totally Different and Not The Same Thing At All, because it just is and that’s that. I would just point out that several of the Mayors who signed that letter opposing stuff like this are Republicans. This is not a partisan issue, it’s one of power and the belief of Abbott and Patrick, enabled by Patrick’s minions in the Senate, that they’re the only legitimate form of government. It’s crazy that we’ve come to this place, but here we are.

Example two:

A bill aimed at protecting property owners’ rights from changing local government regulations could undo years of safety and land use rules and create a building environment in Texas with the potential for bars to pop up in residential neighborhoods, critics say.

Some local officials are calling Senate Bill 12 the “hyper-grandfathering” bill that goes far beyond current state provisions by retroactively applying to each property the land use and safety codes that were in place the last time the property was sold. In the extreme, SB 12 could lead to broad land use possibilities for parcels of land that haven’t changed hands in decades, according to six local government and public policy experts tracking the bill.

[…]

The bill’s author, Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, said in a statement it would protect property owners from new county or city regulations that would upend the plans that people had when they bought the land.

“Since filing Senate Bill 12, I have been working with stakeholder groups across Texas, and I look forward to passing legislation that will protect the rights of Texans to develop their property,” Buckingham said.

In Austin, the passage of SB 12 would drastically undermine the city’s ongoing efforts to rewrite its entire land use code, known as CodeNext. If the City Council signs off next spring as planned on CodeNext, none of its provisions would take effect on a piece of property until the land changed hands, Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey said.

“Let’s say CodeNext gets approved,” Guernsey said “It is not worth a whole lot if I have to deal with property codes from 10, 20 or 30 years (ago).”

I’ll bet the lawyers who specialize in land use codes will make a killing, though. Bear in mind, while the state would impose this requirement, it’s the cities and counties that will get stuck with the costs of implementing and enforcing it. I don’t even know what to say.

Example three:

A Texas Senate committee approved a bill Saturday that would outlaw local restrictions on using a cellphone while driving.

Senate Bill 15 would pre-empt local ordinances on mobile phone usage, effectively rolling back provisions in more than 40 Texas cities that currently post hands-free ordinances stricter than the statewide texting ban. That measure now heads to the full Senate. It was one of several items the Senate Business and Commerce Committee took up Saturday that target local regulations and ordinances.

That committee also passed a bill that would require women to pay a separate premium for insurance coverage of an abortion that is not considered medically necessary.

Gov. Greg Abbott has argued that stricter local cellphone ordinances make for a confusing “patchwork” of regulations across the state, leaving drivers confused as they navigate between areas with different rules. Opponents of SB 15, including police officers from San Antonio and Austin who testified against the measure on Saturday, argue that the state should not pre-empt city ordinances that make people safer.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the Senate sponsor of the statewide texting-while-driving ban that goes into effect in September, said SB 15 would be a “huge step back.”

“I’ve never cried as a senator,” said Zaffirini, a senator since 1987. If this passes, “I think I would cry.”

The committee vote on SB 15 was 7-2.

The Buckingham bill was not voted on in committee, with some comments from the author that it could get reworked. Call me crazy, but maybe this is the sort of thing that needs a more deliberate process, if only to see if there is any legitimate purpose for it. If there’s one bit of good news in all this, it’s that the general insider belief is that most of Abbott’s agenda won’t get passed. There’s still plenty of room for damage even if only a few of his items make it through. The House offers the better chance of non-action, so let your representative know what you think.

Greg Abbott’s war on trees

This is just bizarre.

One of the 20 items Gov. Greg Abbott has asked lawmakers to consider during the upcoming special session, which will begin July 18, is outlawing local tree regulations. More than 50 cities and towns in Texas have ordinances aimed at protecting trees; many of the local rules require property owners to either pay a fee for removing trees or replant trees after they cut some down. Municipalities often design them to prevent the type of branch slashing Beatty said occurred on the property near her Dallas home.

But Abbott — joined by a number of Republican lawmakers and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank — are calling for the end of those local protections. They argue that the tree ordinances are an unconstitutional violation of private property rights, and Abbott, who grappled with Austin tree regulations as a homeowner, calls the rules a “socialistic” infringement on a landowner’s freedom.

“I feel like those who own their trees have the right to do with their trees what they want,” said state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville.

[…]

Keith Mars, who enforces Austin’s tree regulations as the city arborist, said trees are an important reason why Austin is a growing destination known for its quality of life. He points to the environmental and economic benefits of trees.

“We know about the quality that this urban canopy provides for our citizens and why so many people are moving here from all over the country,” he said. “There will be a real economic impact to the vitality of Austin and other cities.”

To Robert Henneke, the general counsel at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, though, the tree regulations hamper economic growth in Texas cities.

“The compliance cost of these tree regulation ordinances is harmful because it drives up the cost of housing,” Henneke said. Henneke said the foundation worked with lawmakers who filed bills on the topic during the regular session.

Those efforts will run up against the Texas Municipal League, an organization that advocates for Texas cities and towns in the Legislature. Bennett Sandlin, the group’s executive director, said the organization plans to resist bills that nullify local tree regulations. He says municipalities have the constitutional power to protect trees.

“If you take that argument to the extreme — that you can do anything you want on your property in an urban area —then you wouldn’t have zoning,” Sandlin said. “You could have a strip club next to a home or you could have a liquor store next to a school.”

See here for the roots (sorry not sorry) of Abbott’s tree tirade. I find this just so petty and vindictive. I mean, maybe Austin’s tree removal ordinances and processes are byzantine and life-sucking – it happens, I have no idea. A normal person might view that as a city problem, since it was the city that put in these requirements, presumably for some justifiable reasons. One could complain to one’s Council member or the Mayor, one could form an organization devoted to reforming or repealing these rules, one could run for city office on a tree-regulation-reform platform – there are many options. To decide that all tree-related regulations in all cities are uniformly terrible and must be destroyed is some kind of special snowflaking right there. Also, some people refer to “driving up the cost of housing” as “enhancing property values”. Maybe talk to a realtor? I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know how Texas ever got to be such a wonderful place when so much of it is clearly a dystopian hellhole. Thank God we have Greg Abbott and his million-dollar donors to set us straight.

Greg Abbott wants to kill off cities

That’s the only way to describe it.

As state lawmakers gather for their biennial session this spring, they’re weighing whether to rein in localities that ban plastic grocery bags, extend civil rights protections to LGBTQ residents, discourage cooperation with federal immigration authorities, impose driver screening requirements for ride-sharing companies and regulate the chopping down of trees.

Those types of clashes, particularly between liberal cities and conservative states, are increasingly common throughout the country, in part because Republicans have a historically high level of control over state governments.

But in Texas, Abbott now suggests that instead of spending time and money battling these issues individually, the state should issue a “ban across the board” on municipal regulations.

“One strategy would be for the state of Texas to take a ‘rifle shot after rifle shot after rifle shot’ approach to try to override all these local regulations,” Abbott explained to the conservative audience last month. “I think it would be far simpler, and frankly easier for those of you who have to run your lives and your businesses on a daily basis, if the state of Texas adopted an overriding policy to create certain standards that must be met.”

The governor has not laid out many more details on how that approach would work, and his press office referred back to his remarks.

But one possibility, says Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, is that the state could strip all 352 home-rule cities, which are free to enact regulations as long as they don’t expressly conflict with state law, of their home-rule powers. They would then be treated as general-rule cities, which are usually small and can regulate only areas the state specifically gives them permission to oversee.

[…]

Sandlin, from the municipal league, has naturally been an outspoken opponent of Abbott’s attacks on municipalities. He says this hostility toward cities and local control didn’t exist at the Texas Capitol before Abbott became governor.

“It’s only been since 2015 that we’ve seen this new tactic, where local control is no longer a good thing, it’s actually an evil thing,” says Sandlin. “The new good thing is now liberty from local regulations.”

I see Abbott’s antipathy towards cities as being of a piece with his antipathy towards the federal government, or a least towards the federal government when a Democrat is President. Basically, he doesn’t tolerate disagreement, and doesn’t recognize the authority of elected officials who do stuff he doesn’t like. It’s not a matter of philosophy or principle, in that he’ll have no problem with any heavyhanded federal actions as long as it’s in the service of policy he supports. Like eminent domain for a border wall, for example. Greg Abbott is about power – his power – and if cities are standing in his way, he’ll seek to crush them. I don’t believe there’s anything more to it than that.

Senate proposes to make our tax system more broken

That’s what this will surely do.

The Texas Senate on Tuesday approved a controversial bill that seeks to curb the growth in property taxes that local government agencies like cities and counties levy on landowners.

Senate Bill 2, which passed in an 18-12 vote, could require taxing entities to hold an election if the amount of operating and maintenance funds they plan to collect from property taxes is, in general, 5 percent more than what they took in the previous year.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt’s bill has split scores of Texas homeowners and the local officials that they elect. Landowners and some government officials say the bill is needed to slow the increase in property tax bills they must pay every year.

Bettencourt, R-Houston, said from the Senate floor Tuesday that many homeowners are seeing increases of 8 percent to 10 percent in what they pay in property taxes each year. He said commercial property owners are repeatedly seeing 15 percent to 20 percent hikes.

“I for one don’t want to continue to climb the ladder above states like Illinois and New York,” Bettencourt said.

But many local and state officials say the Legislature is sidestepping the real issue that leads to rising tax bills: school districts levying more in property taxes because lawmakers won’t change the state’s system for funding education. State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, conceded that point on Tuesday.

“It’s a fine balance between respecting our local elected officials and having an understanding that we still have a lot of work to do,” she said.

Critics of the bill say it glosses over the fact that an election could be triggered when the actual tax rate remains flat because rising property values play a major role in calculating the election trigger. Many local officials also say the bill would threaten their ability to hire police officers, build new parks and fill potholes.

Many police and fire chiefs from across the state testified against the bill last week.

“What do I tell them?,” State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, said Tuesday morning.

“Vote against the people who voted for this turd” would be my advice. One of the good things that has come out of the HISD recapture saga is the increased awareness of the Legislature’s addiction to local property tax revenues as a way of not only easing their own financial responsibilities, but also providing the godsend of being able to blame the whole mess on the local officials who have been left holding the bag. It just doesn’t get any sweeter than that. At least now some people have begun to recognize the con job for what it is, though it’s a long way from becoming a rallying cry. As with many things, we’ll see what happens with this in the House.

One more thing:

Bill proponents say that the automatic election would allow for more local control because it puts more power in the hands of voters.

What’s that you say? Local control?

As local control battles rage at the Texas Capitol, Gov. Greg Abbott is voicing support for a much more sweeping approach to the issues that have captured headlines.

“As opposed to the state having to take multiple rifle-shot approaches at overriding local regulations, I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says across the board, the state is going to preempt local regulations, is a superior approach,” Abbott said Tuesday during a Q-and-A session hosted by the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, an Austin-based think tank.

Such an approach, Abbott added, “makes it more simple, more elegant, but more importantly, provides greater advance notice to businesses and to individuals that you’re going to have the certainty to run your lives.”

Abbott made the remarks in response to a moderator’s question about legislation this session that would “prohibit any local ordinance from exceeding the standard set by the state.”

In other words, local control when we let you have it, or make you have it, but not when we don’t. The Observer has more.

Senate committee hears rideshare bills

One of these, in some form, is likely to become law.

Senate Bill 176, by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and Senate Bill 361 by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, received a joint hearing after [Senate Business & Commerce Committee] chairman Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, noted their similarities. Both bills establish a statewide framework to regulate ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft and undo local rules that the two companies have argued are overly burdensome for their business models.

A majority of about 30 witnesses supported the bills at Tuesday’s hearing, including representatives with Uber and Lyft. Austin councilwoman Ellen Troxclair, who opposed the city’s ride-hailing rules last year, testified in favor of a state law that would override them. Troxclair said the departure of both ride-hailing companies hurt Austin businesses and led to a rise of a transportation black market.

“A Facebook group with over 40,000 members offers to connect people, anybody who wants a ride or anybody who’s willing to give one, regardless of an affiliation to a ride-sharing platform or a background check required,” she said.

Critics of the bills included the Texas Municipal League and Austin City Council member Ann Kitchen. Kitchen, the City Council member who introduced the rules establishing the Austin fingerprinting requirements that prompted Lyft and Uber to leave the city, defended the city’s fingerprinting requirement, and said that the city has fingerprinted 8,000 drivers. At the time the city adopted the rules, she said, the city’s police chief, Art Acevedo, told the council that fingerprinting increased security.

“Fingerprinting is the most effective means to make sure the person you are checking is the person who they say they are,” she said.

See here for some background. Both bills were left pending, but as noted I expect one of them to get a floor vote and to pass. There’s a very similar bill to these two in the House, authored by Rep. Chris Paddie. Any of them could wind up crossing the finish line, and I’ll be surprised if that doesn’t happen.

And on a somewhat tangential note:

Uber and Lyft ramped up their Texas lobby expenditures after Austin voters invited the ride-hailing giants to leave their hi-tech city in 2016 if they refused to comply with a local law requiring them to fingerprint their drivers.

With Texas lawmakers [Tuesday] considering several bills to block cities from regulating such ride companies,1 Uber has increased its state lobby spending 23 percent over last year. It now is spending up to $1.6 million on 26 lobbyists. Lyft meanwhile boosted its lobby spending 88 percent, to pay 14 lobbyists up to $760,000. Together, the two San Francisco-based
companies are spending up to $2.3 million to preempt the powers of local Texas governments.

The two ride giants handed out a total of $40,500 in corporate contributions in 2016 to Texas’ two dominant political parties and to several legislative caucuses.

[Tuesday] the Senate Business and Commerce Committee also is hearing proposals to prevent local governments from curtailing the use of plastic grocery bags or to regulate short-term property rentals.

You can think whatever you want about these bills, but you can’t argue that they don’t come cheap. The Austin Chronicle has more.

Laredo plastic bag ban overturned

Ugh.

plastic-bag

The Fourth Court of Appeals on Wednesday sided with merchants and free-market groups who argued that Laredo’s ban on single-use bags is illegal because it is pre-empted by state law regulating solid waste disposal.

The 2-1 ruling overturned a lower court’s decision, the latest setback for environmentalists and advocates of local control in Texas.

Laredo, which estimates it once went through some 120 million plastic bags each year, is among several Texas cities — including Austin, Fort Stockton and Port Aransas — that have sought to regulate them to reduce waste.

The city argued that its ban was designed to beautify the city and reduce clogs in storm drains, not to manage solid waste as barred by the state law.

The lawsuit, filed by the Laredo Merchants Association, was the first challenge to such a ban to be heard in court. And it triggered briefs from 20 Texas lawmakers, a prominent free-market group and the Texas Municipal League — who squabbled over cities’ power to regulate commerce.

Wednesday’s ruling only affects Laredo’s ordinance for now, but it gives legal momentum to bag ban opponents elsewhere.

[…]

The state law in question is a small piece of Texas’ Health and Safety Code. Local governments, it says, can’t adopt a regulation to “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

Laredo contended that its bag ban’s purpose — “prevention of litter” — did not fall within the “management purposes” barred under the law.

The appeals court disagreed.

“The Ordinance does exactly what the Act intends to prevent — regulate the sale or use of plastic bags for solid waste management purposes,” Justice Marialyn Barnard wrote for the majority.

See here for the background. I’m sorry, I know I’m not a lawyer, but this is a ridiculous reading of the law. You can see here for the bill in question, and see here for its text. I’d bet you a dollar right now that if you tracked down the key people on that bill – author, sponsor, and conference committee members – none of them would claim it was their intent to forbid cities from banning or taxing plastic bags. The idea never would have occurred to them. It just boggles my mind that people who claim to be “conservatives”, who claim to decry “judicial activism”, who claim to oppose “big government meddling”, could view this as a victory for their principles. Do we want the Legislature to set the solid waste pickup schedules for cities like Laredo, too? I don’t get this at all. But here we are, and far too many of our Republican legislative overlords can’t wait to get to Austin in January and pass bills to do more things like this. This is where we are these days.

By the way, to continue with my hobby horse about the appeals courts and the opportunity that this year’s election provides: That 2-1 decision? The two are both Republicans, and the one is a Democrat. Now, there’s nothing that would keep the Supreme Court from overruling a 2-1 decision that had gone the other way, but still. This is what I’m talking about.

Plastic bag litigation update

This could be a big deal.

plastic-bag

Is a plastic bag a container? Does the definition of “solid waste management” include litter control?

If a state appeals court answers yes to both of those questions, regulations on plastic bags in several Texas cities — including Austin, Fort Stockton, and Port Aransas, which ban the bags, and Brownsville, which requires businesses to charge customers a $1 fee for the bags — could be in danger.

The Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio heard oral arguments Tuesday in Laredo Merchants Association v. City of Laredo, in which the merchants claim the city’s ban on single-use bags is illegal because existing state law regulating solid waste disposal preempts it.

The law in question is a small piece of Texas’ Health and Safety Code. Section 361.0961, passed into law by the 1993 Solid Waste Disposal Act, says that local governments can’t adopt regulation to “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” Arguments on Tuesday focused on the definitions of several phrases in the law, especially “container or package” and “solid waste management,” and what, precisely, the Legislature had intended.

The merchants’ case is the first challenge to a Texas municipality’s bag ordinance to make it to court. The Texas Retailers Association filed a suit against Austin’s bag ban in 2013 but later withdrew its petition, and Dallas repealed its bag fee after plastic bag manufacturers sued last year.

The Laredo merchants sued the city in March 2015, and appealed to the Fourth Court after the 341st Judicial District Court in Webb County sided with the city last June. A victory for the merchants could mean the overturning of local bag regulations across the state, while a win for Laredo could encourage other cities to pass regulations of their own.

[…]

On its face, the case is a fight over flimsy pieces of plastic. But the series of amicus briefs filed on each side establish that a much weightier issue is at stake: How much power do local governments have to establish regulations that affect commerce? Three Texas state senators and 17 state representatives, all Republicans, filed an amicus brief last week in support of the merchants, arguing, like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, that state law preempts the bag ban. The Texas Municipal League filed a brief in support of the city. Executive director Bennett Sandlin told the Tribune that the bag issue is one where local control is particularly important because different cities have different environmental concerns; Fort Stockton, for example, cited cattle deaths from ingesting plastic as a reason for the bag ban.

The implications of the local control dispute go beyond plastic bags and extend to ridesharing, energy, rent control, and other areas where municipalities have sought to pass stringent regulations. Last May, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law House Bill 40, which limited local regulation of drilling activities after Denton voted to ban hydraulic fracking in the city. Recently, legislators have vowed to address local rules on ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft.

“We’ve got a Legislature that used to believe in local control and now, some of them, all they believe is control of the locals,” Sandlin said. “We’re facing it not just in plastic bags but any number of issues.”

You can say that again. I’ve blogged a bunch about plastic bags, but this lawsuit had escaped my notice till now. I fully expect the issue to be on the agenda for the Lege in 2017 no matter what happens here. It’s not that Texas Republicans love regulating individual behavior, it’s that they do not recognize as legitimate any form of governance that does things they don’t approve of. They sue the feds, and now the cities are squarely in their sights. Look at the words of two-bit authoritarians like Sen. Don Huffines, who was quoted again in this story, and ask yourself whatever happened to the Republican brand of “small government”. Whatever else these guys are now, that ain’t it.

Three bad bills

Bad bill #1:

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, has been trying for months to pass legislation that would make it tougher for local entities to bring in more tax revenue by taking advantage of rising property values.

On Thursday, he managed to add language to a bill from state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, that could do just that, though not as severely as many local officials had feared.

Creighton’s bill, http://txlege.texastribune.org/84/bills/SB1760/, aims to make the administration of local property taxes more transparent with provisions such as directing the comptroller to publish a ranking of property tax rates statewide and requiring local entities to justify future tax increases on election notices and ballots.

Under Bettencourt’s amendment, 60 percent of the members of a city, county, school district or other local entity’s governing body would have to approve a property tax rate that brings in more revenue from existing homes and businesses than was collected in the previous year — a metric known as “the effective tax rate.” Currently, approval of a simple majority of a local governing board is all that is needed.

[…]

The Texas Municipal League, which counts more than 1,000 Texas cities among its members, first heard rumors about Bettencourt’s amendment Thursday morning, and began lobbying senators against it, fearing that it was an attempt to pass his revenue cap bill, according to to executive director Bennett Sandlin.

The actual amendment language could pose problems for some local entities, Sandlin said. But he stopped short of promising that the municipal league would work to kill it in the House.

“We’re still digesting,” Sandlin said. “It’s not a full-blown revenue cap so I don’t want to say we’re going to go to the mat on this.”

Sandlin argued that the amendment should have been vetted more thoroughly by the Senate.

“It was never in a bill and it never had a hearing,” Sandlin said.

Bad bill #2:

Legislation that would upend the legal process in Texas to allow the attorney general to have a three-judge panel to decide cases with statewide implications, rather than a single district judge, was approved Thursday by the state Senate after a lengthy and pitched debate.

Senate Bill 455 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would allow the attorney general to request the Texas Supreme Court’s chief justice to form a panel of judges to hear any cases filed in a district court in which the state is a defendant.

School finance and redistricting were two examples cited as among the types of cases that could be covered by the change, which supporters argued was needed to keep one county from steering the outcome of important cases that affects all of Texas.

“When one county is given that much control, it effectively disenfranchises voters of the other 253 counties who did not vote for that district court judge,” Creighton said. “We’ve seen a 40-year saga in and out of court on school finance. We have one trial court that hears that case and it is reviewed on appeal by the Supreme Court based on parameters and decisions set by that court. It would be better representation across the state to allow a process where other judges are involved in decisions of that magnitude.”

[…]

Under the bill, a single state district judge still could hear cases with statewide impact, unless the attorney general requested a three-judge panel. A state district judge and an appellate judge from elsewhere in Texas would join the original district judge in hearing the case.

“It sounds totally unnecessary, since those cases go directly on appeal to the Supreme Court that is 100 percent Republican,” said F. Scott McCown, a University of Texas law professor and former Austin district judge who heard school finance cases between 1990 and 2002. “It will be more costly and slower to have three judges on a trial. Three-judge panels are very awkward and inefficient.”

And if lawmakers think they might get a different outcome with a three-judge panel, McCown and other legal experts noted that the Texas Supreme Court has ruled against the state in five of the six of the school-finance cases since 1984.

Bad bill #3:

Texas is poised to widen its welcome mat to a wide range of industries.

Claiming that the state’s bureaucracy is shooing away businesses, House lawmakers on Thursday night gave initial approval to a bill aiming to quicken regulators’ pace of cranking out permits for major industrial projects – by limiting public scrutiny.

Over the objections of consumer groups and environmentalists, the chamber tentatively passed Senate Bill 709, which would scale back contested-case hearings, a process that allows the public to challenge industrial applications for permits at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – such as those allowing wastewater discharges or air pollution emissions.

Texas’ current bureaucracy puts the state at a “serious disadvantage” compared to its neighbors, said Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, adding that her legislation would give businesses more certainty.

Already approved by the Senate, the measure sailed through the House by a 92-50 margin after Democrats put up a roughly 90-minute fight, arguing that lawmakers were poised to squelch the voices of their constituents.

“This bill is very, very serious,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who saw his and other proposed amendments to soften the bill shot down. “You will have to explain to your constituents why you have taken away their right, why you have enhanced their burden and why you have stripped them of protection.”

Contested case hearings resemble a trial in which companies and their critics present evidence and testimony in front of an administrative law judge in the hopes of swaying regulators, who have the final say. For particularly complicated – and controversial – industrial projects, the process can yield information that the short-staffed TCEQ did not foresee.

Protesters rarely convince regulators or a company to completely withdraw a permit application, but veterans of the process say they often win concessions that shrink a plant or landfill’s effects on the community.

[…]

Less than 1 percent of permit applications ever draw a contested-case hearing.

Of 1,960 waste, water and air permit applications filed with TCEQ last year, for instance, the commission granted hearings to just 10, according to an analysis of public records by the advocacy group Public Citizen. The agency confirmed those numbers to The Texas Tribune.

The analysis also found that Texas typically processes air quality permits faster than Arkansas, Arizona, Oklahoma, New Jersey, Colorado and even Louisiana.

I grouped these three bills together because they neatly encapsulate two of the main Republican priorities for this session: Partisan advantage and stomping on local control. Bettencourt’s amendment to Creighton’s bill, which as the story notes is at least not his infamous revenue cap bill, is both an ideological obsession on his part, and a nuisance bit of effluvia that in the end may not make much difference. The city of Houston hasn’t raised its property tax rate in my memory; thanks to its own stupid revenue cap, it may never be able to do so again. HISD raised its lower-than-most property tax rate in 2014 as it said it would as part of the 2012 bond referendum. That passed on a 7-1 vote, so it would have easily cleared the higher bar. As far as counties go, remember that they all have four-member Commissioners Courts plus a County Judge. To pass anything requires either a 3-2 or 3-1 vote depending on whether the Judge votes or not, and all of those are 60% or better. I’m sure this will have some effect somewhere, but here in Houston? Probably not much.

The contested case hearing bill, like the anti-fracking-ban bill, is an example of what happens when the state fails to uphold its responsibilities to the people. Just as there would be no demand in cities to regulate fracking within their limits if the Railroad Commission wasn’t such an industry lapdog, neither would there be much demand for contested case hearings if the TCEQ were worth a damn. The folks in Denton and elsewhere have done what they have done because it was the only viable option available to them. (Well, at least until enough people statewide realize that they need better and more responsive government at that level.) Now that option has been taken away, and this one may be as well. Better hope you don’t live anywhere close to a site that may someday be used for industrial purposes.

(You didn’t think I’d let these bills go by without asking once again what the Mayoral candidates think of them, did you? At least we know what Sylvester Turner thinks of the contested case bill. The Lege and TxDOT are going to have a bigger effect on the next Mayor’s tenure than any of them seem to realize right now.)

Finally, the make-school-finance-lawsuits-more-complicated bill – the story also mention redistricting litigation, but that’s usually done in federal court, and I don’t know that the state has any authority there – is another nuisance partisan bill that like Bettencourt’s amendment may wind up having little practical effect. I mean, if the Supreme Court upholds Judge Dietz’s latest ruling, can anyone claim that politics was a factor? I would also note that it is entirely within the Legislature’s power to ensure that there are no more school finance lawsuits ever again. All they have to do is a better job funding the schools.

Bill to ban anti-fracking ordinances likely to go forward

Disappointing.

Despite vociferous opposition from local elected officials, environmentalists and citizens, many Democrats in the Texas Legislature are supporting controversial legislation that would strip local governments of the power to regulate or ban fracking.

House Bill 40, by Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), is one of 11 measures in the Legislature filed in response to a fracking ban approved by Denton voters in November. Darby’s bill, which was temporarily delayed on Tuesday, would overturn Denton’s fracking ban, Dallas’ de facto prohibition on drilling and other cities’ oil and gas regulations, possibly even rules about the distance between rigs and homes not deemed “reasonable.”

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a progressive Democrat and the longest-serving woman legislator in the House, is one of eight Democrats sponsoring the legislation.

“I think that fracking is a safe mechanism, which they can use to be able to extract oil,” she said. Asked about the practical impact of the bill and whether it would allow oil and gas companies to challenge ordinances they don’t deem “reasonable,” Thompson said, “You’re asking me a legal question and I haven’t had oil and gas law since I was in law school.”

Most of the Democrats who signed onto HB 40 are from areas that don’t contend with the hazards of urban drilling: earthquakes, noise, pipelines through yards and air and water pollution. None are from North Texas, where drilling rigs and other oil-and-gas infrastructure often sits uncomfortably close to homes, churches and businesses.

“The cities are the ones who are truly affected and we’re taking that out of their hands and saying that we’re going to be the ones doing it?” said Rep. Nicole Collier, a Democrat from Fort Worth who plans to vote against HB 40. “They’re the ones who have to answer every day and we’re taking that out of their hands.”

Floor discussion of HB40 was delayed till Friday due to a point of order. The bill is now a substitute version that was agreed upon by the Texas Municipal League, which had initially opposed it, and the Texas Oil and Gas Association. Here’s the TML’s guide to the updated HB40, which they say addressed their larger concerns about pre-empting city ordinances. I appreciate their efforts and I can see where they’re coming from – it was highly likely that some kind of bill of this nature was going to pass, so they did what they could to mitigate it – but I’m more in line with RG Ratcliffe.

The core argument against bans such as the one in Denton is that they take away the property rights of the drillers, the people and companies that buy or lease land to exploit it for mineral production; i.e., frack it for gas. But what about the property rights of people driven out of their homes because of a potential explosion, or who have the value of their homes driven down by a nearby well? And, ultimately, what about the hypocrisy of attacking local control? The state of Texas has been fighting against the federal government over unwanted laws and regulations, so is the Legislature going to grind down local voters in a similar fashion? Denton and Arlington are not cities filled with tree-hugging environmentalists; they typically vote about 60 percent Republican.

[…]

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the oil industry’s desire to drill on land it has owned or leased, but isn’t it also a “taking” if a homeowner cannot sell a house or loses value on a home because of its proximity to an oil or gas well? These are not wells down a caliche road a quarter-mile from a farm house. These are wells in residential neighborhoods. It looks like the legislative leadership is putting jingoism and campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry ahead of the very real concerns of Texas voters and communities.

Well, we know whose takings are more important. Like I said, I can see TML’s rationale. They saw how the wind was blowing and they did what they could to make the best of a bad situation. You don’t have to like what they agreed to, but it was a respectable effort. What I don’t like is Rep. Thompson’s rationale for not only supporting but sponsoring HB40. I’m no expert in oil and gas law, either, but I understand local control and I can see that cities and homeowners are getting the short end of the stick. More to the point, we progressives need to do a better job of sticking together on stuff like this. Pissing off our own allies isn’t helpful. We’re never going to get anything done if we can’t get people who are broadly aligned with us but not direct stakeholders in a given issue when there’s a fight. I mean, if I’m not willing to scratch your back, why should I expect you to scratch mine?

Somewhat watered down fracking bill advances in House

By “fracking bill”, I mean a bill to limit how cities can regulate fracking, because that’s how things are these days.

In a 10-1 vote, the House Committee on Energy Resources approved an updated version of House Bill 40, among the most prominent of nearly a dozen bills filed in the aftermath of Denton’s vote in November to ban hydraulic fracturing within the North Texas city’s limits.

Intended to clarify where local control ends and Texas law begins, HB 40 would pre-empt local efforts to regulate a wide variety of oil and gas activities.

But the substitute legislation also includes language that specifies what cities could still regulate, including fire and emergency response, traffic, lights and noise, while also allowing them to enact “reasonable” setbacks between drilling sites and certain buildings.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, voted against the bill, while Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, voted “present,” meaning he did not pick a side.

The legislation – proposed by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo – now heads to the full House.

The vote drew rebukes from environmentalists, who criticized any attempt to roll back local control. But some representatives for local governments said they were encouraged by changes to the proposal.

“It’s a lot better,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. “There’s a couple of things we’re not 100 percent happy with, but it’s much better than the filed version.”

See here for the background. I’m glad this bill is more limited in scope now, though there are still plenty of other bills out there to stick it to cities, but the fundamental problem that there is no true statewide oversight of fracking remains. I’ll say it again, if the Railroad Commission were worth a damn, cities like Denton wouldn’t have taken things into their own hands. If the Lege really wants to address this, that’s the place to start. Trail Blazers has more.

Local control deathwatch: Environment

Unsurprisingly, the Denton fracking ban has provoked a strong reaction.

As policy dilemmas go, the one triggered when Denton voters decided last fall to ban hydraulic fracturing in their city looked like a whopper: The oil and gas industry versus local control — two things Texas holds dear — in intractable opposition. There seemed little doubt lawmakers would weigh in upon their return to Austin.

But four months after the North Texas city’s historic vote, top state lawmakers don’t appear to be scratching their heads. Petroleum is winning hands down, and local control appears headed for a beating.

Several legislative proposals so far leave less wiggle room for Texas cities to regulate oil and gas production. 

“We need to restate that principle that the state has responsibility to regulate the oil and gas industry,” said state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, who chairs the House Energy Resources Committee. “I don’t know where people might have believed that the state was not going to assert fully its rights to regulate that.”

Texas lawmakers this session have filed at least 11 bills that would discourage local governments from enacting or amending certain drilling rules. Meanwhile, those watching legislation on the issue say they haven’t noticed one proposal to bolster – or even support – local control on petroleum development.

“We didn’t expect these to be just completely one-sided,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. “Instead, they’re swinging for the fences, and it’s quite alarming.” 

The trend is part of a broader debate — touching on issues including plastic bag bans and sanctuary cities — that some Republicans have sought to reframe as a debate about the size of government.

Supporters of Denton’s fracking ban “accused me of violating my conservative principles, arguing that since a local government passed a measure, any attempt to overturn it would be using ‘big government’ to squash dissent,” state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “They have it backwards, because ‘big government’ is happening at the local level.”

One of King’s bills would require cities to get the attorney general’s blessing before enacting or repealing any ordinance by voter initiative or referendum, the tool Denton activists used to push that city’s fracking ban. Another would require cities that tighten drilling regulations to reimburse the state for any lost tax revenue.

Other bills have addressed compensation for mineral rights owners harmed by a local ordinance, while legislation from state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, gets right to the point of the Denton debate: It would ban fracking bans.

Perhaps the most controversial proposals, however, are those most likely to pass. Identical bills from Darby and Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, would limit cities’ power to regulate the industry to “surface activity that is incident to an oil and gas operation, is commercially reasonable, does not effectively prohibit an oil and gas operation, and is not otherwise preempted by state or federal law.”

Texas law says the state intends its mineral resources to be “fully and effectively exploited,” but courts have said the power isn’t absolute. The Texas Railroad Commission oversees the state’s oil and gas industry, with authority to adopt “all necessary rules for governing and regulating persons and their operations.” Local governments have the right to impose reasonable health and safety restrictions, and the Legislature has granted most Texas cities the power to “regulate exploration and development of mineral interests.” 

See here for past coverage. I would have voted for the Denton ban, but I can understand the objections to it. Mineral rights are complex in Texas, and anyone who had such rights within Denton could reasonably complain that his or her property was taken away. It’s also generally better to have a uniform regulatory environment to facilitate business compliance. But that gets to the crux of the matter here, which is that the regulatory environment in Texas is a joke. The Railroad Commission is a complete lapdog for corporate interests. It’s precisely because activists in Denton felt they were being ignored and pushed aside that they sought out an alternate remedy. If we had a useful, functioning Railroad Commission, we would not have had this ballot referendum or interest in having such a referendum in other cities. This is not hard to understand, but the campaign coffers of people like Phil King and Konni Burton depend on them pretending to not understand it.

And speaking of the environment.

In another fight over local control this session, state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), one of the more powerful lawmakers in the House, is pushing a bill that would erode the ability of cities and counties to collect civil penalties from polluters. This morning, Geren described the latest version of his House Bill 1794 to the House Environmental Regulation Committee as a way to curb “lawsuit abuse” by capping the maximum penalties that can be assessed on environmental violators at $4.3 million and imposing a five-year statute of limitations on the filing of lawsuits.

The legislation appears to be a response to high-profile litigation between Harris County and three companies considered liable for the San Jacinto River waste pits, an EPA Superfund site that has been leaking dioxins into the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay for decades.

While Geren jettisoned some of the most far-reaching parts of the original version of HB 1794—a requirement for local governments to prove that a company “knowingly or intentionally” violated the law, for example—local authorities and environmentalists said they were still opposed.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, the veteran head of Public Citizen’s Texas office, said cities and counties need the ability to force polluters to pay civil penalties because state enforcement of environmental laws is so weak.

“We think the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] is a toothless tiger,” he said. The agency doesn’t have the resources or “the guts to go after biggest polluters.”

[…]

County- or city-led lawsuits seeking penalties from water polluters are relatively rare, but Harris County, with its vast petrochemical facilities, 20 known Superfund sites and loose rules that allow homes next to industry, is probably the most litigious. In the last 19 years, the county has issued 18,000 violation notices to companies and filed 205 civil actions, said Cathy Sisk, a retired environmental attorney with Harris County. She said the county only resorted to the lawsuit because the three successor companies hadn’t done anything to clean up the site, even going so far as to defy EPA’s orders.

“We feel like in those cases we need a hammer,” she said.

Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican, made a pitch for keeping local control. “Government is best when it’s closest to the people,” he said. Sometimes, state officials are “removed from the passion of the folks who actually live in the neighborhoods, where we work, where we breathe, where we play and live.”

HB 1794 was left pending. A companion bill in the Senate, SB 1509, by Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills) has yet to be assigned a committee.

Indeed, the TCEQ is as useless as the Railroad Commission and as deeply in the pocket of the people and businesses they are supposed to regulate. What else is one to do but take the avenue that is available? If you don’t want the Harris County Attorney filing so many lawsuits against polluters, then provide a regulatory agency that will, you know, actually regulate. That includes going after the bad actors and levying punishments as needed. Again, this is not hard to understand. It should not be this hard to do.

Cities and counties push back on state meddling attempts

They’ve got their work cut out for them.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The mayors of Texas’ largest cities on Monday pushed back against an initiative by state lawmakers to place new revenue caps on local communities as a way to answer conservatives’ demands to cut property taxes.

As the city CEOs who represent a third of Texas’ population threw their clout behind blocking the new caps, saying it would hurt their ability to provide basic services, they also said they will oppose attempts by the Legislature to limit local control by overturning ordinances on fracking, plastic bags and tree-trimming.

Gov. Greg Abbott last month complained that Texas was being “California-ized” by local governments passing bans on plastic bags, fracking and tree-cutting, saying, “We need to peel back some of these ridiculous, unnecessary requirements.”

Previous legislative efforts to restrict cities’ rule-making authority have met with resistance from those citing the need for local control. Several bills in the last session to overturn cities’ authority to ban bags failed to win approval amid opposition from cities and environmental groups.

At their news conference Monday, the mayors used the same reasoning to oppose tax cuts being contemplated by lawmakers.

Calling themselves the M-10, for the 10 largest cities they represent, the mayors said in a joint statement that new caps on property taxes would impair the ability of cities to properly manage their operations and would thwart the ability of cities to solve problems in their own ways.

“We are very clear that we need to focus on solving the problems of Texas in a fiscally responsible way,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker, echoing the sentiments of other mayors who said local governments have limited property tax increases in many areas and are budgeting in a frugal way.

The city of Houston has not increased its property tax rate since 1994; in fact, the city has cut its tax rate since then, though its revenues have continued to grow because of higher property appraisals.

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor said local governments should be allowed to determine their own budgets, not affected adversely by Austin.

“Our cities are the economic engine for the Texas miracle,” she said.

It’s not just the cities that are feeling the potential crush here. That’s good, because Texas’ cities are increasingly out of step politically with the state. I doubt the Lege would have much concern about sticking it to the cities, but if they’re hearing it from county officials as well, they might hesitate. I hope, anyway. And I’ll say again, the Mayoral candidates need to get on this, like now. This Legislature has the capability and the inclination to do a lot to affect their agendas, and not in a good way. What are they waiting for? Trail Blazers has more.

Appraisal caps back on the agenda

The idea will never die, unfortunately. No matter what the effects are.

BagOfMoney

Local officials in the Houston area say they are concerned that incoming state leaders will push for tax relief measures that could limit their ability to meet the needs of fast-growing urban and suburban areas.

Gov.-elect Greg Abbott has spoken of “looking at ways that we can try to provide some level of tax relief,” and it was also a key platform of the incoming lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick. With rising assessments driving up tax bills in many suburban counties, some lawmakers have proposed reining in such increases. Proposals include making it easier for residents to call a tax rate election when property tax revenue comes in high to lowering the cap on taxable home values.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he is concerned about state lawmakers potentially tying the hands of county officials to set tax policy and provide adequate services.

“If you lower property taxes, someone is going to have to tell counties like Harris what services you don’t want anymore, because we’re barely funding our mandated duties as is,” Emmett said.

[…]

Other proposals submitted so far in early bill filings for 2015 include hiring county-level tax experts, lowering the appraisal cap from 10 percent, expanding exemptions, capping revenue growth based on a formula that considers population and inflation, and abolishing property taxes altogether, replacing them with a modified sales tax.

“The devil is in the details,” said Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert. “Depending on how they cap it, it could shut down how Fort Bend serves the county. I think there’s a reasonable solution to it if we get everyone to be reasonable.”

Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, agreed that some of the proposals could provide taxpayers with relief without crippling the budgets and autonomy of local leaders.

“We’re always open to the idea of appraisal reform, but we’re not fans of the revenue-capping idea,” Sandlin said. “The revenue cap takes discretion away from the governments closest to the people. It’s the state saying, ‘We know what’s best.’ ”

If the Legislature actually cared about making the appraisal system better and fairer and more equitable, there’s lots they could do to make that happen. That’s not what they’re interested in, of course. It’s the usual wingnut wish list of cutting taxes for the wealthy and limiting spending for no good reason. You’d think these legislative Republicans would be leery about making Texas be like California, but irony died a long time ago and left no successor.

Besides, it’s not like there aren’t other ways to arbitrarily limit spending.

The Legislative Budget Board voted unanimously Monday to set the state’s growth rate at 11.68 percent for its 2016-17 budget, about 1 percent higher than the spending cap for the current budget.

The decision comes as state officials expect to enter the next legislative session in January with a multibillion-dollar surplus and competing factions push to ramp spending growth both down and up.

The budget board — made up of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, House Speaker Joe Straus, and four members each of the state House and Senate — selected the rate with little discussion, though the decision could have a big impact on next year’s legislative session.

The growth rate guides how far the next budget can exceed the current one in spending on “nondedicated revenue,” which are the parts of the budget that are funded by state taxes but not required to go to specific programs. In practice, the growth rate puts a spending cap on less than half of the state’s two-year budget. State leaders have indicated they have no plans to attempt to “bust the spending cap” next year, a move that would require the support of a majority of lawmakers.

That 11.68 percent growth rate was the low end of the range. Moody’s pegged the state’s growth rate at over 15 percent. Ah, but what do those private sector yahoos know about anything, am I right?

No notary needed

Seems reasonable.

Many Houston business owners are celebrating a new ordinance that drops the need for a notary when applying for hundreds of permits and allows the city to offer more applications online.

The Houston City Council lauded the change as business friendly and tech savvy.

“So many of the permits require you to notarize your statements, which makes it difficult to do things online,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “We think you ought to be able to get virtually any permit from the city of Houston online.”

A state law passed in 2011 cleared the way.

A one-page bill, authored by Galveston Democrat Rep. Craig Eiland and passed without much attention, allows governments and courts, for the first time outside of prisons, to use unsworn declarations instead of notarized affidavits.

The same punishments for perjury are connected to the declarations, which favor simple language over legal terminology.

“It just means you don’t need to have a notary put a stamp next to it,” said Bruce Haupt, the city’s deputy assistant finance director. “It makes the paperwork side of this a lot easier.”

Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, said he is unaware of any other cities updating their ordinances since the 2011 law. Like many business leaders, it was the first he heard of Eiland’s bill. “It sounds like Houston’s on top of it,” Sandlin said.

Like I said, seems reasonable to me. There’s no opposition quoted in the story, so if there’s an argument for requiring notarization of all these forms, I’m not aware of it. Generally speaking, reducing paperwork and letting stuff like this happen online is the direction we want to go. Anyone know of a reason why not? Please leave a comment and let us know.

Less is more, local legislative edition

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.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

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.

[…]

Judge Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

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.