State government takes aim at city of Austin ordinances

Austin City Councilwoman Ann Kitchen speaks to reporters after defending the city's ride-hailing ordinance in front of the Senate's Business and Commerce Committee. (KXAN Photo)
Austin City Councilwoman Ann Kitchen speaks to reporters after defending the city's ride-hailing ordinance in front of the Senate's Business and Commerce Committee. (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The battle over who governs the people of Austin and Travis County is playing out again at the State Capitol. Texas lawmakers are taking up a number of bills that would override laws passed by local governments. Several Austin leaders came to tell lawmakers to defend their position and ask the state to back off.

“It is true that Austin is a little bit different than the other cities in this state,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

The mayor came to defend Austin’s ban on plastic bags, fingerprint requirements for ride-hailing apps, short term rental policies, the city’s non-discrimination bathroom ordinance and to try and stop a bill that would cap the city’s budget. Much of the debate happened in the Senate’s business and commerce committee that took up the bills and is expected to pass them on to the full Senate in the coming days.

State lawmakers want the city to change in the name of economic liberty. “I question that because Austin has one of the best economies of any city in the country right now. I think that’s an indication that we’re doing something right,” said Adler.

The lone conservative voice on the City Council, District 8’s Ellen Troxclair, says it’s a good feeling to have backup in state committees.

She joins the many other conservatives who control state government in believing that recent city ordinances infringe on the individual rights of the people who live in Central Texas.

“I think the sovereignty of the cities come from the state,” Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, said. “So we are completely within our purview to let them know when we feel like they’re out stepping their bounds a little bit.” She’s the first Republican Senator from Travis County in modern memory.

The highest profile bill, SB 6, the Texas Privacy Act, known as the “bathroom bill,” tentatively passed the Texas Senate after several hours of debate and a 21 to 10 vote. It would overturn Austin’s bathroom section of its non-discrimination ordinance. House leaders have not shown interest in passing the bill.

The state is also suing the city of Austin. Last October, Attorney General Ken Paxton joined a lawsuit over the city’s rules on short term rentals, calling them an “overreach” that infringes on the “constitutional rights” of short-term rental property owners.

Last July, the AG’s office filed its own lawsuit accusing the city of violating the state’s Open Carry law by not allowing properly licensed individuals to carry a firearm at City Hall.

The battle over the sanctuary city ban picks up Wednesday with a public hearing in the House Committee on State Affairs. The Senate hearing last month lasted for 16 hours. More than 400 people signed up to testify. Most opposed it.

SB 4 would require local law enforcement to turn over anyone arrested for a crime and in the country illegally to federal authorities. The bill strips away state grants if they don’t. An amendment added in the Senate would allow department heads who refuse to be charged with a crime and removed from office. Some believe that provision is intended directly for Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez over her ICE detainer policy.

As of Feb. 1, the Travis County Jail only places ICE holds on suspects who have been accused of capital murder, murder, aggravated sexual assault, or continuous human smuggling.

State lawmakers are in session until the last day of May.

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