The End Is Near: Final Marching Orders
As the 2013 legislative session draws to a close, here are six top issues that city officials should speak out on. We urge you to pick the one or two items that matter most to your city and contact your legislators now.
1. Firearms: See the lead article in this edition.
2. Transparency: On Thursday, May 9, the Senate passed S.B. 14 (Williams). S.B. 14 is the “fiscal transparency” bill that is supported by the Texas comptroller. The Senate took action on the bill after a procedural point of order derailed its companion bill (H.B. 14) in the House.
In its original form, S.B. 14 would have required a ballot in a city bond approval election to include various types of city debt information and would have placed serious limitations on a city’s ability to issue certificates of obligation (COs). The bill has been revised many times, and the current version is significantly better for Texas cities than the original version. See the article in the last edition of the TML Legislative Update for details. The bill is now pending in the House Committee on Appropriations.
3. Public Information Act: On May 7, the Senate unanimously approved S.B. 1563 (Ellis). The as-filed bill attempted to clarify that emails and texts sent or received by a public employee or officer and relating to government business are “public information” under the Texas Public Information Act (PIA). However, it would have gone much further than that and made any city vendor subject to the PIA.
The current version of the bill is much improved, as it would not affect city vendors. It would merely codify existing attorney general opinions providing that personal emails and text messages pertaining to official city business are “public information” for purposes of the PIA. The House Committee on Government Efficiency and Reform held a hearing on the bill on May 14, and it is pending in that committee.
4. Law Enforcement Drones: H.B. 912 (Gooden) was voted from the Senate Agriculture, Rural Affairs, and Homeland Security Committee on May 14. The bill would make it an offense for a person to use an unmanned vehicle or unmanned aircraft (e.g., a “drone”) to capture or use photos or videos taken by the vehicle.
The bill, even with its numerous exceptions, negatively affects law enforcement. While the bill excepts from its application certain images used for law enforcement purposes, the exceptions are insufficient. For instance, the bill does not except incidental images captured during the authorized use of a drone.
As a further example, the bill allows the use of an image captured by a law enforcement drone in immediate pursuit of a person law enforcement officers have probable cause to suspect has committed a felony. If during that lawful use, a drone captures an image of a person committing a sexual offense against a child, the bill would prohibit the use of that image to prosecute the child molester.
Cities should be able to capture images of individuals and real property for any legitimate law enforcement purpose, so long as they don’t run afoul of privacy rights and protections currently provided in the law. For that reason, a complete law enforcement exemption should be added to the bill.
5. Sales/Property Tax Exemptions: A handful of bills would impose sales tax or property tax exemptions that would have a negative fiscal impact on Texas cities.
H.B. 800 (Murphy) would provide an exemption from state and local sales taxes for depreciable tangible personal property directly used for qualified research activities. The fiscal note for H.B. 800 shows that cities will collectively lose up to $24 million per year due to the exemption. The bill was voted favorably from the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Fiscal Matters and is now pending before the full Senate Finance Committee.
H.B. 1360 (and H.J.R. 86, the corresponding constitutional amendment) (Ritter) would give a property tax exemption for property leased to certain private schools and charter schools. Because the tax exemption is tied to the entity leasing the property, this bill represents a shift from the general practice of providing exemptions only to the owner of property. It potentially would open the door to countless exemptions in the future to be granted to the lessee of property, which could prove highly detrimental to city budgets. H.B. 1360 is currently pending in the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Fiscal Matters.
6. Farmers’ Markets: H.B. 1382 (Simpson) would allow individuals to provide food samples to the general public at a farmers’ market without any regulation by a city or local health department. Health regulations, if a city chooses to enforce such regulations, help ensure that these farmers’ market vendors are using safe methods and equipment to create food for consumption.
By prohibiting cities from adopting reasonable safeguards on these demonstrations and samples, H.B. 1382 endangers the health and safety of the public. Cities have the health and safety of their citizens as a primary goal when enacting regulations and should be free to continue to protect their residents. For these reasons, cities require the authority to inspect and permit these vendors. The bill is pending in the Senate Agriculture, Rural Affairs, and Homeland Security Committee.