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The state of Texas vs. the city of Austin. Round infinity.



TX – We’ve got more to mull today about legislative oversight (overrule?) of the affairs of the city of Austin. The latest chapter in this ongoing saga comes from Thursday action in the Texas Senate and a Wednesday hearing of the Texas House Committee on Urban Affairs.

On the table at the committee, and left there without a vote at this point, was House Bill 1803, by Rep. Terry Wilson, R-Marble Falls. I defy you not to have sympathies on all sides of this issue.

The bill’s genesis was Austin’s February purchase of a Candlewood Suites hotel near U.S. 183 and Texas 45. The hotel is in Austin, but in the Williamson County portion of the city. Williamson County officials and some residents and nearby businesses are most unhappy about the plan to house homeless people there and say they were blindsided.

Wilson’s bill says “a municipality may not purchase a property to house homeless individuals unless the commissioners court of the county in which the property is located approves a plan …”

Coincidentally, the Texas Senate, without opposition, on Thursday approved Senate Bill 796, a related measure by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown. Unlike HB 1803, the Senate bill does not require county approval of such a purchase. It does, however, require a city to post notice and hold a hearing before purchase or conversion of a property “to house homeless individuals.”

On the House side, the committee discussion was predictable, starting with Wilson’s defense of his bill: “We must require coordination between cities and counties to ensure appropriate resources and programs are available to individuals in need.” The committee heard from homeless services advocates who oppose the bill and Williamson County officials, business owners and residents who support it.

Several committee members focused on the broader topic of state intervention in local matters. Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, said as a former city council member he’d find it “almost insulting when I have to go and ask permission from the county or the state to do my job that my body of citizens elected me to do.”

Wilson said regardless of the wisdom of the Austin hotel purchase in Williamson County, “we’re just sitting here saying that if you bring all parties to the table you’ll come up with a better plan.”

That got Johnson to thinking about where that kind of thinking might lead: “Williamson County is in the state of Texas. … Do we take it another step further and then do we start reaching in Williamson County and say, ‘Hey, before you do anything you got to come check with us as state legislators?’”

There were no witnesses representing Austin. But the committee heard from Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell, who referred to “Austin’s underhanded ways.”

Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, steered the conversation back to state intervention in local battles.

“This sort of feels like an immediate response to one issue and asking the Legislature to solve a disagreement between two levels of government that I actually believe they are mature enough to resolve without our interference,” Bernal told Gravell. He added, “Asking us to step into this debate, you know, is uncomfortable.”

He said the bill seems like a “response to one very specific, geographically compact place and moment in time.”

Gravell replied: “I respectfully disagree. I think it is the responsibility of the lawmakers to solve problems within the state of Texas. As county judge, I don’t create laws. I only follow the laws that you guys create. It’s your responsibility to help solve the problems that we’re encountering.”

Bernal said: “I think that the more often that this body, this committee in particular, is asked to referee local issues, it’s more likely that we invite that every single time there’s a local issue. … The more often we’re asked to referee local issues, the more likely that those bodies then defer to us in that way.”

Wilson was undeterred.

“It was overreach,” he said of the hotel purchase. “And they used the most vulnerable as a pawn. And I find that offensive.”

A difficult issue indeed. And one in which all sides can find a reason to feel offended. But does that make it an issue that elevates to legislative concern?