COVER: State Sens. Brandon Creighton, R-The Woodlands, and Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, at a Business & Commerce committee hearing on Saturday. PHOTO by BOB DAEMMRICH/THE TEXAS TRIBUNE
by ANDY DUEHREN and EMMA PLATOFF
AUSTIN — A Texas Senate committee approved a bill Saturday that would outlaw local restrictions on using a cellphone while driving.
Senate Bill 15 would pre-empt local ordinances on mobile phone usage, effectively rolling back provisions in more than 40 Texas cities that currently post hands-free ordinances stricter than the statewide texting ban. That measure now heads to the full Senate. It was one of several items the Senate Business and Commerce Committee took up Saturday that target local regulations and ordinances.
That committee also passed a bill that would require women to pay a separate premium for insurance coverage of an abortion that is not considered medically necessary.
Gov. Greg Abbott has argued that stricter local cellphone ordinances make for a confusing “patchwork” of regulations across the state, leaving drivers confused as they navigate between areas with different rules. Opponents of SB 15, including police officers from San Antonio and Austin who testified against the measure on Saturday, argue that the state should not pre-empt city ordinances that make people safer.
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the Senate sponsor of the statewide texting-while-driving ban that goes into effect in September, said SB 15 would be a “huge step back.”
“I’ve never cried as a senator,” said Zaffirini, a senator since 1987. If this passes, “I think I would cry.”
The committee vote on SB 15 was 7-2.
The panel did not vote on three other bills that focus on local regulations in municipalities across the state. In some cases, lawmakers indicated that they were willing to reconsider elements of the bills.
Senate Bill 12 would prohibit cities and town from enforcing ordinances on a property that were not in place when that property was purchased. During the hearing Saturday, several witnesses raised concerns that the bill would overrule local ordinances regulating noise, short-term rentals, and environmental dangers. State Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, said that she had proposed an amendment that “drastically” reworks the bill.
“In all fairnesss, we realized there were a bunch of unintended consequences,” Buckingham said.
The committee also took on local tree ordinances with Senate Bill 14, which would prohibit towns and cities from passing ordinances regulating tree cutting on private land. More than 50 cities and towns across Texas regulate tree cutting, requiring property owners to either pay a free or replant trees when they cut them down on their land.
“That sounds reasonable,” state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, said after hearing about the tree ordinance in Galveston. “Maybe there is room for a statewide ordinance.”
Still, elected officials from cities across Texas remained critical of the proposed bills that limit the ability of a city or town to enforce local regulations or ordinances. On SB 12, SB 14, and Senate Bill 13, which seeks to accelerate permitting processes across the state, many witnesses strongly condemned efforts by state lawmakers to step into local rules.
“The decision on whether to have local tree protections rules should be made at the local level by the citizens in each community and not by an overreaching centralized government here in Austin,” said Mary Dennis, the mayor of Live Oak and the president of the Texas Municipal League.
Other witnesses and lawmakers attacked the local rules as overbearing and encroaching on the rights of the citizens who live there. Bryan Mathew, a policy analyst at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, said that the tree regulations infringed on the private property rights of Texans.
“Private property ownership has always been understood as including at a minimum of the dirt and vegetation, including trees, on your land,” he said.
SB 13 would automatically approving permit applications if a municipality does not approve it quickly enough and outlaws a set of worker protections in the city of Austin. During the hearing, Ned Muñoz, the general counsel of the Texas Association of Builders, discussed changes the groups was working on with the bill’s authors, while several city officials denounced the effort to change local permitting rules.
“We should not be sacrificing public safety in favor of a speedier permitting process,” said Allen Bogard, the city manager of Sugar Land.
Also on Saturday, the Senate Select Committee on Government Reform passed State Sen. Paul Bettencourt’s bill aiming to slow property tax bill growth after hearing hours of testimony on that legislation and bills that would make the property appraisal process more transparent.
Senate Bill 1 would require cities and counties to have an election if the amount of property tax revenues they collect on existing property and buildings exceeds 4 percent of the amount levied the previous year. Currently, residents can petition for an election if property collections exceed 8 percent.
Such an election requirement has been controversial, with city and county leaders saying it will hamstring their abilities to pay for necessary services. Supporters of the measure say it will give Texans more control over their tax bills.
ANDY DUEHREN and EMMA PLATOFF report for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.