The Austin City Council has achieved something that few other entities or causes have been able to do in this session of the Texas Legislature — forge bipartisan voting coalitions. The problem for the Council is that the bipartisan agreement is about overturning their policies. And the problem for the citizens of Austin is that at least one of the bills aimed at Austin would have some very serious, potentially debilitating effects on the City.

That is House Bill 1900 (HB 1900) which establishes that cities with population over 250,000 can be declared “defunding municipalities” and then face a series of draconian punishments from the state. That bill has been passed by the House, but, when we last reported, was pending in the Senate Jurisprudence Committee. It has now been recommended by the Committee and passed by the Senate on Monday (May 24). HB 1900 passed by a margin of 22 to 4, but a list of how each individual Senator voted was not available at press time. 

Meanwhile the House passed another defunding bill, Senate Bill 23, which is less onerous than HB 1900, but is still an intrusion on local control. It requires an election before a City can cut a police department’s budget. Each defunding bill has now passed both the House and Senate. The only thing remaining is for conference committees to work out differences in the versions passed by each body. Then one of the bills, or both, can head to the Governor’s desk. In the case of HB 1900, the House sponsor has already said he supports amendments made in the Senate.

Both houses have also now passed a statewide camping ban, inspired by the Austin Council’s June 2019 repeal of Austin’s camping ban. Since Austin voters recently overturned the Council’s action, the bill will not have the kind of impact on Austin that the defunding bills would.

Crippling Local Governance

Under HB 1900, cities who are declared to be “defunding municipalities (read Austin since no other major city has cut their police budget)” would have their property tax revenues frozen at the level of their current budget, and lose their annexation powers. Even worse, a defunding municipality would be forced to set disannexation elections in every area that the City has annexed in the last 30 years. It’s hard to describe or even imagine the kind of governance anarchy this could create if areas chose to disannex. Perhaps, ironically, one area affected would be police service which would fall to the Travis County Sheriff’s Office in most instances. Fire service in many cases would shift to local volunteer fire departments, although Austin would likely still serve as emergency backup. 

Water and wastewater service would be extremely complicated. Austin water and wastewater service was already being provided before annexation in many of the areas annexed over the last 30 years. That was usually done through Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs). In many cases the City, i.e. Austin Water (where, full disclosure, I was an Assistant Director from 2007 through 2019), absorbed the bond debt of the MUDs. 

HB 1900 does not address how any of these aspects of disannexation would work. So a mishmash of existing Texas law would come into play. In the case of water and wastewater, service would likely continue in some way. Since the state allows suburban customers, or wholesale providers, to challenge the rates of a municipal utility to the state Public Utility Commission, this would likely set up still another way that state policy favors suburbs over cities. Meanwhile, HB 1900 freezes water and wastewater rates for municipally owned utilities as well, along with electric rates. So municipally owned utilities — read Austin Water and Austin Energy — would face severe revenue challenges.

The City would also lose a huge chunk of property taxes from disannexed areas. It’s not clear yet how much that would total compared to any savings from not having to serve an area, but it would be very surprising if that came out in the City’s favor.

All of the above covers just a brief smattering of the mess that disannexation would bring. Perhaps the City is readying a legal challenge, but that is uncertain at this point and it would not be wise for City representatives to talk about that with the Legislature still in session. 

What The Austin Council Potentially Faces

As reported in an earlier article, the criteria for being declared a “defunding municipality” goes back two budget years. That means Austin could not get out of the woods by approving a new budget before the law takes effect. While the language is still open to interpretation it appears to this reporter that Austin has not already qualified through its cuts to this year’s budget. That’s because the bill only kicks in with municipal budgets that take effect September 1, 2021 or later. Austin’s next budget will take effect October 1, 2021. 

So from our reading, that would put the Austin City Council in the humiliating position of having to vote to restore all the cuts they made to the Austin Police Department (APD) budget last year. If the Council refused to approve the budget restorations then all the punishing aspects of the bill would kick in — like the property tax freeze and the disannexation elections.  

Coming into compliance with HB 1900 would thus mean restoring the $21 million in cuts from the police budget that the Council reallocated to social service type expenses. Also, because the bill does not grant any exceptions for transferring police functions to another department, it appears that the City would also have to restore the roughly $130 million in cuts the Council put into transition funds. That $130 million funds functions such at Forensics, the Office of Police Oversight, 911 and Victims Services. The idea was to move the funds from the police budget, and partially placate activists, while the Council considered other places to locate those functions within City government. The Council and City Management have been slowly working through options. For instance the Council recently approved a new Forensic Science Department. Under the language of HB 1900, the Forensic Science Department, and all the functions funded within the transition funds, would have to somehow go back into the police budget — or at least an equal amount of funding would have to be added to the police budget.

In our previous story we discussed how HB 1900 won significant Democratic support in the House, especially from Hispanic representatives from South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley. That pattern continued in the Senate, for example with enthusiastic support from Senators Juan Hinojosa and Eddie Lucio. The driving force seems to be the gains Republicans have made in recent elections in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley and the determination of Democrats from that area not to get caught in Republican political traps intended to make them appear soft on public safety, and/or in favor of defunding the police. Of course it is also possible that these representatives truly do abhor efforts to defund the police and thus support this legislation. And, both could be true.

The Statewide Camping Ban

A similar bipartisan super majority emerged in a Senate vote on a statewide homeless camping ban. Even Austin (and Bastrop) State Senator Sarah Eckhardt hung the Council out to dry in her speech against the statewide camping ban on the Senate floor. She told the Senate, “I understand the desire of this body to send a strong message to the City of Austin.” She said that was the “same desire” that led citizens to reinstate the camping ban in the recent election. Eckhardt continued, “I will not defend the City of Austin for lifting a camping ban (in 2019) without a plan because it didn’t help these poor people find their way to a home, but I also cannot support a statewide camping ban that does very little to help these poor people find their way to a home.”

Senator Sarah Eckhardt addresses the Texas Senate during discussion of the statewide camping ban – screenshot from Texas Senate online. Photo at top by Jana Birchum, state police protecting the Capitol in January

  The only Senators joining Eckhardt in voting no were Royce West of Dallas, Borris Miles of Houston and César Blanco of El Paso. Once again Democrats from the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas sided with Republicans. And, the bipartisan coalition went even further on this issue.

The bill’s sponsor is Republican Senator Dawn Buckingham, a doctor from Lakeway. She represents a tiny portion of Austin in a hill country district that includes Burnet and Llano while stretching southwest to Kerrville, Bandera and Medina and northwest to Brownwood and part of Abilene. The district also includes Killeen in its northeastern portion. The first sentence on Buckingham’s Senate webpage reads, “Dawn Buckingham is a conservative small business owner who believes the best approach to government is ‘less is more.’”

“I will not defend the City of Austin for lifting a camping ban (in 2019) without a plan because it didn’t help these poor people find their way to a home, but I also cannot support a statewide camping ban that does very little to help these poor people find their way to a home.” Austin State Senator Sarah Eckhardt

On the statewide camping ban, however, Buckingham showed some ability to work across the aisle. For instance Democratic Senator José Menéndez of San Antonio worked with Buckingham to ensure that the bill did not, in his words result in “a new criminalization of poverty or sleeping in public.” In a polite back and forth between the two on the Senate floor, Buckingham explained that her bill drew from “best practices” in San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. She singled out San Antonio as a statewide “leader” for its Haven of Hope facility. 

That prompted Menéndez to explain how police officers in San Antonio, which has its form of a camping ban, offer homeless people the alternative of going to the Courtyard at the Haven for Hope where they are allowed to sleep; and have the opportunity of ultimately getting involved in programs that can potentially transition them out of homelessness. Menéndez said that leaders from Haven of Hope testified in favor of the bill in committee because “Without a public camping ban they couldn’t get them there,”

Along those lines he said he wanted to make sure that homeless people caught camping be “informed of services that are available.” Buckingham maintained that the bill requires police officers to do that, adding that it gives law enforcement the authority to help “people experiencing homelessness” get to a place where they “can heal.”

Senator Eddie Lucio Jr of Brownsville wasn’t quite as subtle. “If I were to define this bill, I would call it, probably, the humanitarian bill of the century,” said Lucio in beginning his remarks. 

Also asking questions of Buckingham was the stalwart progressive, liberal Democrat Carol Alvarado of Houston. Alvarado said she and Buckingham had engaged in lengthy discussions about the bill and said, ”I’m a little torn.” Alvarado then asked whether Buckingham’s bill would apply to someone who just went to sleep somewhere covered up with a blanket.

Buckingham said no, there would have to be signs of digging in the ground and personal belongings stored nearby. 

Alvarado also sought assurances that Buckingham’s bill would not interfere with camping bans cities already have in place, like Houston. Buckingham gave those assurances and Alvarado ultimately voted for the bill.

Alvarado was joined in the yes column by another Houston Democrat, John Whitmire, the Senate’s longest serving member. He also engaged in a dialogue with Buckingham, asking her if she considered this bill to be just a “step” and not the “solution,” and that at some point there would need to be a “comprehensive plan.” 

Buckingham agreed, saying that her bill is just “a critical first step.”

Whitmire didn’t fare as well when he asked Buckingham if she would later consider “state resources” to help solve the problem. 

“I definitely think that’s something to look into,” Buckingham replied, but quickly added, “faith based initiatives are doing the best for ‘zero tax dollars.”’ In some skillful questioning a few minutes later Eckhardt got Buckingham to acknowledge that public funds and infrastructure often aid faith based and private initiatives as well. Eckhardt also pointed out that the $12.5 million budget rider attached to the bill to aid localities deal with homelessness is a pittance.  

Ultimately the statewide camping ban sailed through on a 27 to 4 vote.

The session ends in less than a week and then Austin can start assessing the damage. The best hope for Austin on any of these bills is that they get killed on technicalities and procedural challenges. That, however, usually happens earlier in the process.

And, look out, because the Legislature will be coming back to town at some point for a special session. That session will at the very least cover redistricting, and possibly some bills that didn’t quite make it this time. 


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