Sunday, February 25, 2007

Eye on the Snakepit

Now that the Legislature has removed the budgetary logjam, things in the Austin Snakepit are getting lively. I spent much of Saturday strolling through the Texas Legislature Online site, thought I would report on items of local interest I found. The site, , is well worth one's time, very user friendly and it even lets one put any given bill on e-mail alert every time that bill moves. For background, HB is a House Bill, SB a Senate bill, HJR or SJR, the JR is Joint Resolution, required for Constitutional Amendments. ED is Eminent Domain and Viagra has no effect on it.

The local city charter review is in progress, and I am confident limiting eminent domain will make it on the charter ballot. After the Kelo decision, eminent domain limits are popping up in Austin like flowers after an early spring rain. My favorite is HJR 11, by Frank Corte, a Constitutional Amendment which would limit ED to public use, no transfer to another private owner, AND require the entity exercising ED to present “clear and convincing evidence” of the necessity of a particular seizure. As it should be. Our Senator Robert Duncan has SJR 3, a good Constitutional Amendment. It would require any future grant of ED from the Legislature to a local entity be passed by a 4/5ths, recorded vote majority, and invalidate any such grant previously given, meaning existing ED power is NOT grandfathered, but must be re-applied for under the 4/5ths rule. HJR 30 is another Constitutional Amendment requiring the state to grant the original owner of seized property first chance at buying back any land seized, but not used, by the state after twenty years, at no more than original compensation given.

Just a few of the more notable, and passable offerings follow. HB 1495 would require the Attorney General to formulate a “Landowner's Bill of Rights, “in plain English and posted to the OAG website”.

HB 1387 would limit ED by School Boards, they would have to provide impact studies and evidence that all viable options to purchase land in a voluntary transaction have been exhausted before filing for condemnation.

HB 252 is one of my favorites, and bearing the name of the Land & Resources Management Committee Chair Anna Mowery, would seem to have good prospects. This bill says that local zoning changes may not decrease the value of the affected property by more than 10% unless the zoning entity is willing to move to ED condemnation and compensation. It includes in consideration collateral damage to contiguous, but unrezoned property belong to the same owner and provides compensation for legal costs of a prevailing appealant. These are pretty much the cream of a 56 bill crop, but by no means the only worthwhile ones out there. One thing that did surprise me on ED bills, none I have found directly require the taxable evaluation of a property be used as baseline floor for the compensation offered. One of the nastier results of the Kelo decision, one of the affected property owners was only given $150,000 for property New London had cheerfully taxed at an evaluation of $240,000 for 10 years. Seems a simple proposition to me, if the property is worth x when the city's hand is out to take, it should still be worth at least x when that hand extends to give.

HB 1678 is a modified version of a bill Gov. Perry vetoed last session, providing for more use of probation in place of prison time for non-violent felons. Yes, this largely means drug offenders, but no, I don't regard it as “soft on crime” so much as way softer on our wallet. Prison time is horrendously expensive. When one considers that in inmates per 100,000 Texas has an incarceration rate 10 times that of Communist China, the possibility we need to rethink the system comes to mind.

SB 3 will be worth watching, it and its House companion bills move many elements of the Regional Water Planning we have been developing for over a decade from recommendation to statute. There will no doubt be amendments along the way, but needless to say, this package is critical to West Texas and bears watching. Something based on this will almost assuredly pass, this has the big dogs behind it. High on my “alert” list.

Our new Representative Drew Darby has done well, landing a plum appointment to the critical Appropriations Committee. In that he voted for a recorded vote in the Speaker's election, I hope he will support HJR 77, a Constitutional Amendment requiring recorded votes on all bills and resolutions. As befits a freshman Representative, his docket of proposals is modest. One to enhance the legal penalty for defrauding people on charitable donations reflects a local case and closes a loophole that needs closing. He also authored HB 1617, which would amend the Economic Development Corp. act to allow a person not a city resident to be appointed as a director of COSADC. It amends the current 20,000 population limit on this to 100,000. The existing exemption allows smaller towns to use county residents to fill unpaid positions, quite reasonable. I wasn't aware San Angelo had any difficulty seating seven COSADC members.

I post this bearing in mind Mark Twain's caution that, “No man's property or liberty is secure so long as the Legislature is in session.” Humor aside, Texas really does have some very good people in Austin, but there are rascals and mere incompetents as well. Never hurts to keep an eye on them. Feel free to contact them. Listening to us is in the job description.

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