87th LegislatureState HouseState SenateHomeless Camping Ban, Police Defunding Punishment Mark State Lawmakers’ Rebuke of the City of Austin

The 87th Legislative Session featured another episode in a long conflict between the conservative state government and its progressive capital city.
June 1, 2021
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“Local control” has become a major catchphrase in Texas politics — employed as a defense for a wide array of policies, both rudimentary and radical, passed by political subdivisions. In no other Texas city is this exercised more frequently than the state’s capital, and the legislature responded in kind with its own slate of bills to crack down on Austin’s indiscretions.

Since the legislature last convened in 2019, the City of Austin has pushed the policy envelope — repealing a prohibition against public homeless camping and cutting and redirecting $150 million from its police department budget.

The legislature passed legislation aimed directly at both of these policies: one, banning public camping statewide and the other, establishing penalties for cities that cut police department budgets.

Those punishments include preventing property tax increases the following year and allowing neighborhoods annexed within the last 35 years to reconsider it in a referendum.

Both bills were backed by the governor and leadership of each respective chamber — sending a clear message to Austin’s city council it may just as soon disregard.

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The legislature took a crack at various other Austin-related policies but swung and missed on the final execution. Most notably among them was the bail reform priority legislation that became a legislative casualty when House Democrats walked out to prevent a quorum during debate over election security legislation.

Back in 2019, the City of Austin adopted an ordinance directing the municipal court to prioritize personal recognizance bonds for indigent defendants at the expense of the threat they posed to public safety.

This resulted in a number of offenders being released after arrests and then committing worse crimes while out on bond — including murder. Austin is not the only city to have adopted this kind of policy, but it is among the chief offenders.

The legislature’s attempt to restrict the use of bail didn’t make it through the session despite being an emergency item from Governor Greg Abbott. The governor has promised to revisit the item in a special session, but when that will occur is up in the air.

Another big-ticket reform that was squandered at a deadline would have prohibited cities from inserting themselves into contract negotiations between private businesses and their employees. A response to things like Austin’s “Better Builder Program” — a set of employment benefit requirements that precluded the city’s awarding of construction bids — the legislature whiffed on the prohibition during the Democratic walkout.

That city policy was spearheaded by the Workers Defense Project, a progressive workers center that functions like a labor union but does not pay taxes like one. The group has since expanded its reach to other Texas cities.

The policy was not among any list of priorities and so it is unlikely to be revived for a special session — set to languish until the next session.

One piece of priority legislation that collapsed in the final stretch was a ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying. And while Austin is far from the only locality using public dollars to fund lobbying efforts, Abbott has before singled out the city for doing so.

“Austin — don’t even try to defend taxpayer-funded lobbying,” he said late last year.

“It is indefensible that you tax residents to get money that you use to hire lobbyists to support legislation to allow you to tax even more.”

That legislation floundered after a heated intraparty fight resulted in its postponement — killing it for this regular session.

On a much smaller scale, legislation that would have allowed Lake Austin residents to dis-annex from the City of Austin passed through the Senate back in April. But on the House floor, members of the Austin delegation successfully torpedoed it using a point of order — a parliamentary procedural challenge.

That resulted in retaliation on the next day’s Local & Consent Calendar but showcases the antipathy many in the legislature hold for the state’s capital city. And it’s not as if city officials haven’t earned such scorn.

While the legislature whiffed on a number of Austin-aimed bills, it connected on its two most explicit rebukes of the city’s policies: homeless camping and police defunding.

Abbott celebrated the latter’s passing, stating emphatically, “A LOT of residents in the City of Austin will soon have the chance to de-annex from their over-taxing, over-regulating, do-nothing-about-the-homeless city.”

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.