March 29, 2007
Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) found a surprising ally in Chair Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) at yesterday’s Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.The Austin delegation used to be the Capitol’s punching bag for what’s wrong with aggressive land use policies. Following a rather unhappy exchange between Watson and the state and local homebuilders associations, however, Carona dressed down the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin for failing to mount a proper and timely campaign against Watson’s trio of bills to address the zoning and infrastructure along the State Highway 130 corridor. Those bills, presented in committee yesterday, are Senate Bills 1688, 1689 and 1690.HBA Austin prepared its usual, and usually successful, criticism of Austin land use bills, outlining the typical list of complaints in an e-mail sent out to members early in the week: Austin code and zoning requirements exceed other cities in the state and often add thousands of dollars to the cost of a home. City leaders, given unlimited power to run amok, have continued to rack up codes and ordinances with no regard for staffing and costs. And handing additional power to Council would be a tremendous mistake.“If you believe that this kind of authority is needed, please, please give the responsibility to an entity that has the training and experience and the willingness to recognize some fundamentals of Texas government – like property rights or free markets – and that planning should be used for economic vitality,” said HBA President Eric Perkins. “If left in the hands of the Austin City Council, years of experience show us that it will be contrary to the needs of the home buying public, contrary to the wishes of the consumer and contrary to the will of the Legislature.”That’s typical session rhetoric from the homebuilders. But Watson, a trial lawyer, couldn’t help but start deconstructing Perkins’ testimony with a few questions. Had Perkins read the full bill? Perkins had to admit he had not. Then Watson pointed to a statement in an e-mail sent out by the association, which incorrectly stated that limited-purpose annexations extended the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction another five miles. Was Perkins aware that the statement was false? Yes, he was.Add to that the fact that Watson already had criticized the Texas Homebuilders Association for refusing to offer any suggestions to improve the bill – and criticized the local chapter for suggesting that the bills needed to be killed rather than improved – and Watson didn’t have to say much more. Carona said it for him, noting that he was hardly sympathetic to a group that had failed to raise any concerns about the bill until the week of the hearing and then failed to meet with the author to address any concerns.Then Carona said it plainly. The homebuilder association simply didn’t have the kind of political muscle at the Capitol to show up at the last minute and expect to kill a bill. Other organizations do, but not the homebuilders. No lawmaker wants to be ambushed on a bill two or three days before a bill goes to hearing, Carona said. Even in a property rights loving state like Texas.“If you all really want to get the word out on the bill, and give our offices time to work with the author to make a better bill, something has to change in the way you all go about the approach of information and of lobbying,” Carona said. “This doesn’t cut it.”That took a lot of steam out of the righteous indignation of the homebuilders. Homebuilders lobbyist Harry Savio was left to apologize for the failure to meet with Carona’s office earlier. After the hearing broke and returned – a Senate session intervened – a number of speakers who had signed up in opposition to the bills already had departed the Capitol.Watson’s trio of Senate bills would create an infrastructure district for Austin, limited-annexation authority for smaller cities and nominal zoning powers for Travis and Williamson counties along the route. Watson pointed out that the limited-annexation powers and the zoning powers were already appropriated in other situations in the state. Specifically, limited-annexation power has been given to cities larger than 250,000 and zoning does take place along certain lakefronts. Watson argued that a major toll road was equally important.All three bills, which had substitutes, were left pending in committee. Comments ranged from support of those who were impacted by the bills – Austin, Travis County, Round Rock, Georgetown – to a number of concerns from landowners with pending litigation against the city. Those with questions were encouraged to meet privately with Watson.In the House, Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Taylor) will carry the companion for Senate Bill 1688. Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) will carry the companion for Senate Bill 1689. And Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) will carry the companion for Senate Bill 1690.