With the 86th Texas Legislature clearly in the rear-view mirror, some local leaders are asking: What happened?
Local leaders in the days after the legislative session ended decried several bills eliminating municipalities’ ability to regulate local issues. But the bigger question is how representatives and state leaders allowed the bills to move forward in the first place, officials said.
“Some mayors have been pretty harsh on the local representatives, but others just want to know what’s going on,” League City Mayor Pat Hallisey said. “Some smart people defend the governor and lieutenant governor on this, but to us it all looks like an assault on cities.
“Why are they doing it? They probably have their reasons, but no one has explained to me what they are.”
Included in the list of recent legislation that has drawn local objection are House Bill 852, which prohibits city administrators from considering the value of a dwelling or the cost of improving a home when pricing the permits or inspections, and House Bill 2439, which prohibits local communities from passing a whole host of ordinances governing what the exterior of a building must look like, among others.
But, while Hallisey and other Galveston County leaders expressed concern shortly after the bills were signed, a group of mayors along the northern reaches of Galveston County and southern Harris County are now reaching out to representatives for more information, they said.
“There’s been some pretty heated discussion about it, frankly,” Kemah Mayor Terri Gale said. “We were unhappily surprised by the impact of some of the legislation. Some of it worked in our favor, but some of it obviously did not.”
The group of 12 mayors surrounding Clear Lake have been meeting with local legislators since the session ended to address concerns about the new bills, as well as to identify how they came about and what they can do to better address concerns in the future, Gale said.
The mayors’ roundtable began expanding around the Clear Lake area as a means for city leaders to work together to craft arguments ahead of the 86th Legislative Session.
Clear Creek separates Galveston County from Harris County, but parts of both Friends- wood and League City are in both counties. And many of the mayors sitting at the figurative roundtable are from cities in Harris County.
The creek’s watershed extends from Brazoria County to the west to Galveston Bay in the east.
Getting answers to the questions, however, has been anything but straightforward, Hallisey said.
“I think our representatives were listening and sympathetic,” Hallisey said. “The problem was that the hierarchy in Austin wanted those things done, and what were they supposed to do?”
At least some local representatives are sympathetic to leaders like Hallisey.
“We’ve had some big cities, in particular San Antonio and Austin do things that are disagreeable,” state Sen. Larry Taylor said. “But it’s a balancing act — I know taxpayers appreciate things like property tax relief. But I was also on Friendswood city council, so I understand their perspective.”
Some legislation, such as the masonry ordinance ban, did appear to come out of nowhere, Taylor said.
The bill prevents League City from enforcing a masonry ordinance it passed in 2016 in an attempt by the city to impose higher building standards.
For most new structures in commercial zones, exterior building walls facing the street or public spaces have to be 100 percent masonry. All other exterior building walls have to be at least 85 percent masonry. This doesn’t include doors and windows.
League City leaders, without success, had asked Gov. Greg Abbott to veto the bill that would prohibit cities from requiring or forbidding the use of certain building materials, such as masonry, in new construction.
“I tend to agree with the local leaders that it was not well-crafted,” Taylor said. “But I understand what they were trying to do.”
Taylor’s understanding is that legislators were worried some cities were creating ordinances requiring developers and builders to use specific products, but wasn’t exactly sure which cities did that, he said.
Another representative, Rep. Mayes Middleton, blamed the issues local leaders were having on lobbyists.
“This demonstrates a key problem with taxpayer-funded lobbyists that local governments hire,” he said.
Local leaders have Middleton’s cell phone number and he has theirs and the more they speak directly, the better it is for transparency, he said.
The mayors’ current issues stem from legislation out of the 86th Legislature, but state leaders for years have advocated for bills that seem to undercut local control, Hallisey said. And it’s unclear who is asking for that.
The ongoing discussion over the Grand Parkway project is another example of no one being sure exactly what is happening, Hallisey said.
State officials recently recommended removing the project to bring the highway through Galveston County, but declined to comment about the rationale behind the decision.
Galveston County officials for months have hypothesized that state officials put pressure on the Texas Transportation Commission to shelve the project because it would have been a toll road.
Gale said recent meetings with representatives have gone well with them, and this can be an opportunity to improve communication moving forward.
“If you look at the volume of bills rolling through at the state level, I’m sure anyone in the legislature can’t be involved with everything,” Gale said. “They do their best to keep up with details, but sometimes there may be subtlety they don’t notice. We’ll do our best when there are more eyes looking at the details and discussing it.”