McALLEN, RGV – Bills that weakened the power of municipalities were discussed during an overview of the 86th legislative session at a McAllen City Commission workshop.

A presentation on how the recently concluded session went was made by Kwame N. Walker and Holly B. Deshields of McGuireWoods Consulting. This lobby firm was hired by the City of McAllen to represent the city at the state Capitol.

“Sadly, they went after cities and counties like no other session before,” said DeShields, senior vice president for state government relations at McGuireWoods.

The lobby firm presented a 23-page report to the city commission. It included a wrap-up on the major pieces of legislation passed, including Senate Bill 2, otherwise known as the Texas Property Tax Reform & Transparency Act, and House Bill 3, which dealt with school finance reformer. 

The report also looked at the state budget, bills filed and passed by the Rio Grande Valley legislative delegation, and legislation that directly impacted municipalities. McGuireWoods cited 28 bills that targeted cities.

One of these was HB 4257 by state Rep. Tom Craddick of Midland which prohibits a municipality from imposing higher utility rates if a proposed annex is disapproved.

Another was HJR 34 by state Rep. Hugh Shine of Temple which allows a home owner to be temporarily exempt from property tax.

Another was SB 476 by state Sen. Kelly Hancock of North Richmond Hills which prohibits municipalities from restricting restaurants from allowing dogs on their patios.

Another was SB 1152, also by Hancock, which restricts municipalities from imposing right-of-way fees on telecommunications companies. 

Another was HB 2496 by state Rep. John Cyrier of Lockhart that prohibits municipalities from using zoning to establish historical landmarks. 

“There were a lot of bills directed at cities,” said Walker. “There was another one that restricts a municipality’s authority to set strict building standards. For right now we (cities) are going to be a target.”

Deshields agreed.

“Everything from the elimination of lemonade stands to farmers markets to you guys not being able to regulate dogs being on patios. It was just across the board. You could not have made it up if you had tried on what that moving target was going to be next,” lobbyist said.

Walker referenced Sen. Hancock’s SB 1192. “Those (telecommunications) companies that have one line but offer other services, will only pay the higher franchise fee. That is going to be another hit,” Walker said.  “There will be a lawsuit filed so we will see what happened. From the testimony I heard during the session, it seemed like there was no doubt this bill was unconstitutional.”

City of McAllen attorney Kevin Pagan nodded when Walker mentioned the filing of a lawsuit.

The McGuireWoods report also listed ten bills that would have impacted municipalities but did not get passed. 

SB 29 by state Sen. Bob Hall of Edgewood would have prohibited political subdivisions from hiring an external lobbyist. If this had passed, the City of McAllen would have had to say goodbye to McGuireWoods. 

Another anti-lobbying bill listed in the report that did not pass was SB 702 by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston. It would have increased the reporting requirements for political subdivisions. 

“Could these bills come back?” Deshields asked. “For sure the bill that prevents cities from hiring lobbyists. That will definitely be coming back.”

Walker pointed out the McAllen is not the target of this anti-city legislation. The legislation is really aimed at bigger cities that pass ordinances that the Legislature does not agree with. “If Austin or San Antonio or somebody like that passes something they don’t like, we get hit,” Walker said, noting that the days when carve-outs within pieces of legislation could be added have gone.

After hearing the presentation by Walker and Deshields, McAllen City Commissioner Veronica Whitacre noted that McAllen was “constantly playing defense.”

Fellow commissioner Omar Quintanilla asked if there was anything McAllen wanted that did get passed. McAllen City Manager Roy Rodriguez answered this question.

“We are still clinging to some hope on the bridge. But, that did not advance the way we were asking it be done, through the budget, instead of discretionary funds from TxDOT, which, there is still a chance that might happen,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez was referring the City of McAllen’s efforts to get funding in the budget for infrastructure improvements at the two international bridges the city owns.

“If you look at some of the things that passed, and some of the funding, in our immediate area, it is really disappointing that there was not a higher level of energy on that bridge as a priority,” Rodriguez said.

“We get hundreds of thousands of people use that bridge and we did not get funding and yet Edinburg Airport did. No offense to Edinburg.”

South Texas International Airport in Edinburg received $5 million in the new state budget.

“The irony is Edinburg Airport is doing upgrades so that law enforcement personnel can use the airport when in fact they are already at McAllen,” said McAllen Mayor Jim Darling. “You would think we would have had funding (for the international bridges) with USMCA (about to kick in).”

Going back to HB 3, which pumped a lot of money into public education, Darling asked Deshields if lawmakers are going to have to find new sources of revenues in future sessions.

“It was really a band aid, but a band aid before a primary and general election prior to a redistricting session, so very much political,” Deshields replied.

Commissioner Whitacre said McAllen’s work to get better outcomes in the next legislative session must start straightaway.

Deshields agreed. “In the interim we have to mend those fences,” she said. 

Deshields recommended city leaders formulate a list of their top priorities and get them to the lieutenant governor and the speaker so they are studied during the interim. “We have to show the great work you are doing.”