June 3, 2007
After 140 days of political froth and legislative sausage-making, the Legislature left Austin pretty much as the lawmakers found it when they convened in January.There may be more movies filmed locally, thanks to $22 million included in the state budget to lure out-of-state productions. Homeowners in an East Austin area where property values are rising rapidly may find it more affordable to stay in the neighborhood because of a homestead preservation district. And drivers may begin stopping on yellow to avoid tickets from red-light cameras coming to the River City.Yet, what the Legislature didn’t do is even higher on the list of accomplishments cited by Austin and Travis County officials.The Legislature refused to cap growth inlocal tax revenue or property appraisals — proposals championed by taxpayer groups that wanted the state to restrict local governments’ ability to raise both.”If you took a hit on those,” said Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, “you’d lose some public services.”Biscoe also praised the Legislature’s decision not to require public entities, including the state itself, to fully disclose the long-term cost of their retirement benefits.Texas is the first state to reject that national accounting rule.The bulk of the 1,475 measures sent to Gov. Rick Perry will become law. But he has until June 17 to veto legislation, including local bills.What does get killed, however, won’t get a chance tobe resurrected until the next regular legislative session, in 2009.The City of Austin deep-sixed efforts to roll back its water quality standards to the lower state levels and frustrated an attempt by homeowners in the Lost Creek and Peninsula subdivisions to avoid annexation into the city.Likewise, Austin’s ordinance limiting the size of homes in older neighborhoods survived an assault by builders. It died without a floor vote in either legislative chamber.The city’s biggest loss was a proposed district to direct growth alongside the new Texas 130 toll road on Austin’s eastern frontier. The Senate, under the guidance of Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, would have given the city instant zoning authority in a narrow band along Texas 130.But voters would have had to weigh in before the district could issue debt to build roads and utility lines, could tax residents to pay off that debt and could give the city zoning powers throughout the area.The proposal died without a vote by the House.”It was a big, first-time idea in a building not known for being open to new authority for cities,” Watson said.With so much success its first time out, the concept probably will return in 2009 for further consideration.On another front, the Legislature gave Austin’s emergency medical services workers the right to “meet and confer” about benefits and working conditions with city management, the same procedure enjoyed by local police and firefighters.The Senate, however, denied the same for the rest of the municipal work force.Lawmakers approved technical changes in a law backed by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin two years ago that would allow the implementation of a homestead preservation district.The goal is to make home ownership more affordable in an East Austin district bounded by the Colorado River, Interstate 35, Manor Road and Airport Boulevard.The law allows the city to set up a land bank that could obtain abandoned property on which owners have stopped paying taxes. A nonprofit trust could be set up to buy land under houses that families could retain ownership of and pass on to their heirs. And the growth of tax revenue in the district could be used to provide more housing for lower-income people.That area has seen double-digit percentage increases in property values as families with higher incomes move into newly constructed condominiums and houses.”A lot of people living there are having a hard time staying because of the higher property taxes. And if they sell, they can’t afford to move nearby,” Rodri- guez said. “This is a way to keep some of the neighborhood’s character.”Cameras at traffic intersections that cities use to ticket drivers who run red lights are a perennial issue at the Capitol.Several cities have installed them, and Austin had planned a pilot project for the summer.Legislation was passed that would clear up the legal ambiguity about whether cities can do it.But lawmakers required that cities share the revenue with regional trauma centers (locally, that’s Brackenridge Hospital).Austin also tagged along with bigger Texas locales, such as Dallas, that got a new taxing option to lure large events such as the Super Bowl. Projected increases in sales, hotel and car rental taxes because of the event could be used as incentives to attract them.Finally, in a city that celebrates all things al fresco (except maybe in the heat of late August), the sidewalk cafe is now legal.Under legislation backed by Watson, restaurants with mixed beverage licenses can serve customers on the street side of a public sidewalk if a city ordinance allows it.Bon appetit!