May 15, 2023 - Politics

Austin makes a target for GOP-led Legislature

Illustration of the Texas State Capitol with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

The filing of "Austin bashing" bills is a common pastime in the Texas Legislature, and this year is no exception.

Driving the news: There are two weeks to go in the legislative session, and we've been tracking measures Austin leaders oppose.

  • Some measures have already missed key legislative deadlines and will not make it into law.

Yes, but: Legislative proposals have a funny way of sticking around until the final gavel, sometimes winning a second life after getting tacked on as amendments to bills headed to passage.

The big picture: Many conservative lawmakers frame Austin as both lawless and overregulated.

  • In the interest of protecting personal freedoms and property rights, they have long passed laws that dismantle environmental protections and other rules enacted by local elected officials.

Bills that appear to have some momentum:

  • HB 2239 would remove municipal protections for Ashe juniper trees, a move some activists say would have repercussions for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.
  • SB 491 would make it harder for large cities to adopt or enforce rules limiting the height of buildings.

If passed, that bill allows height limits only within 50 feet of single-family homes, compared to current limits in Austin that extend 540 feet from most single-family homes.

The intrigue: Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, an Austin Democrat, teamed up with Republicans to support the bill. She told the American-Statesman she had lost confidence in Austin's ability to ease building restrictions on its own.

Bills that appear to have little momentum or have missed a key deadline:

  • SB 1601 would bar city libraries from getting state money "if the library hosts an event at which a man presenting as a woman or a woman presenting as a man reads a book or a story to a minor for entertainment."
  • In an effort to protect property owners, SB 1214 would require a city to hold a public hearing prior to converting a property under the city's control for housing individuals experiencing homelessness.
  • As part of a GOP-led crackdown on voting access, SB 990 would eliminate countywide Election Day polling places.
  • HB 2789 would prohibit cities, as is currently the case in Austin, from requiring a minimum lot size for an accessory dwelling unit — also known as a garage apartment or granny flat.

Between the lines: The session has been a test of Mayor Kirk Watson's ability to work with GOP leadership.

  • The former Democratic state senator, known as a dealmaker who influenced legislation even while operating from a minority position, is now on the outside as Austin's newly elected mayor.

Austin-area Republican state Rep. Ellen Troxclair — a former Austin City Council member — has proposed a measure that could doom Project Connect, Austin's planned light rail system, by forcing a new round of voter approval before issuing any future debt.

  • Watson first worked to stave off the bill — but with passage likely, he pivoted to preparing to win voters on the matter.
  • "It's a terrible precedent for the Legislature to muck with a voter-approved infrastructure investment that is allowed under state law almost three years after an election that also fully complied with state law," Watson wrote in his April Watson Wire newsletter'. "But if were going to protect light rail for the long run, we need to bring this question back home to the people of Austin and let the people vote — again."

The bottom line: Austin-bashing will continue even after the legislative session ends.


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