As state lawmakers head to Austin on Tuesday, Bexar County and City of San Antonio officials have laid out their goals for what they want — and more importantly don’t want — out of the 88th Legislature.

“Texas cities traditionally play defense during the legislative session,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League (TML), which represents roughly 1,100 of the state’s more than 1,200 incorporated cities, including San Antonio.

“Our main goal is to prevent legislation that would preempt cities from taking care of health, safety, zoning, public safety and other important key things that cities provide,” said Sandlin, whose group meets weekly with city leaders throughout the session.

Leaders in San Antonio already have a list of bills they’re tracking that would restrict the city’s ability to pay contracted lobbyists or regulate commerce.

County leaders, on the other hand, approved a legislative agenda focused primarily on asking the state to adequately fund services it’s already supposed to cover, but has increasingly pushed off to the county.

Of interest to both the city and county, Sandlin said, is the future of tax incentives that municipalities use to lure businesses into their communities.

The Legislature let a tax abatement used by school districts, Chapter 313, expire last session. Efforts to bring it back haven’t succeeded, which Sandlin said could indicate trouble for the city and county’s authority to offer such agreements in the future, Sandlin said. That authority is currently protected under a different provision, Chapter 380, which does not have a built in expiration date.

“We haven’t seen any bad legislation [filed on Chapter 380] yet, but there were interim hearings on that issue in the Senate, so we’re just going to watch that closely,” Sandlin said.

While other states provide significant funding to their cities, Sandlin said, Texas cities primarily raise their own revenue to provide services and receive relatively little funding from the state.

“Most mayors are OK with that. They don’t want to be at the Capitol begging for money like their counterparts in other states,” he said. “But in return for that, [cities] ask that we be left alone to represent our constituents.”

In recent years the Republican-led Legislature has taken the opposite approach, framing its role as a last line of defense between more liberal municipal leaders who want to spend excessively and reduce law enforcement.

Previous sessions produced laws aimed at curbing both of those issues, while the coming session could take aim at progressive district attorneys, House Speaker Dade Phelan said at the Texas Tribune Festival in September.

The Texas State Capitol in Austin.
The Texas State Capitol will host the 88th legislative session starting Tuesday. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Bexar County’s state House delegation includes three Republicans and seven Democrats, including new Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Trey Martinez Fischer. The county’s state Senate delegation includes three Democrats and one Republican.

“One of the things that sets Bexar County and San Antonio apart from Dallas and Houston is that we all come together,” state Sen. José Menéndez said of his Republican and Democratic colleagues at a November reception hosted by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re not going to let ourselves get torn up into into factions, we’re going to work on what’s best for San Antonioans,” he said.

Bexar County

Bexar County approved its legislative agenda in November, focusing heavily on the state’s role in the county’s criminal justice system. The move comes as the county’s jail is facing a severe staffing shortage, while struggling to deal with a more violent inmate population.

Bexar County plans to ask the state to increase funding for mental health treatment the state is already supposed to provide for people who aren’t mentally fit to stand trial. That request comes as state leaders have a massive budget surplus to draw from, but have redirected money away from the state’s Human Services Commission and the Texas Department of Public Safety to fund border security efforts in the past year.

Bexar County officials also are asking the legislature to revisit a change it made to the bail bond system in the 2021 legislative session, which county leaders say has caused its jail’s pretrial misdemeanor population to grow by roughly a third.

In addition, a November letter from Commissioners Court to the county’s legislative delegation said Bexar County is currently housing more than 300 inmates that the state is responsible for transferring to a mental health facility because a court has found them incompetent to stand trial.

Some of those inmates have been waiting more than two years for a bed in a state mental health facility, according to the letter, costing the county roughly $416 per day to house them.

“There’s an issue in the juvenile system, and obviously the adult system, in the mental health capacities of the state in general,” said Nikki Pressley, chief of staff for the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Right On Crime initiative.

The letter from commissioners also requested discretion in setting bond for nonviolent offenders, something county leaders say they lost under the Senate Bill 6, which requires people accused of violent crimes to put up cash for bail.

Policy experts following the issue say the Republican-led Legislature is more likely to look at expanding the reforms it’s already made in the upcoming session, not reverse them.

“I’m fairly certain that the bail constitutional amendment will come back up, which would expand judicial discretion to allow them to deny bail on serious high-risk cases,” said Pressley, whose group supported SB6.

The county’s agenda also asks the state to create an additional probate court in Bexar County.

It’s requesting an increase in funding for the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, which is supposed to pay for public defense, but often leaves county taxpayers to pay for some portion due to insufficient funding, according to the county’s agenda.

Commissioners Court also approved a list of abortion rights measures that activists lobbied to include in the legislative agenda, but commissioners were skeptical these would have much impact in a state that passed some of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws last session.

San Antonio

The City of San Antonio approved its legislative agenda in November, using broad language to cover a list of primarily defensive goals.

“It stakes out our positions on key topics and then allows for maneuverability because the reality is, the bills change over and over,” said Assistant City Manager Jeff Coyle, who perviously served as the city’s legislative director.

The Inter-Governmental Relations committee meets on Mar. 28, 2019.
Assistant City Manager Jeff Coyle Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Last session roughly 10,000 bills were filed in the Texas House and Senate, of which about 3,800 passed.

Coyle said the city’s government affairs team typically updates the City Council every other week on the status of important bills throughout the session. The city also retains a team of lobbyists who work with lawmakers from other parts of the state.

Additionally, Mayor Ron Nirenberg chairs Texas’ Big City Mayors, a group of 18 mayors who advocate at the Capitol on behalf of the state’s most populous cities.

“In recent times, legislative sessions have been challenging for cities as some lawmakers push to dilute local control, and this year’s session is likely to feature more of the same dynamic,” Nirenberg said in a statement.

“San Antonio needs the flexibility and authority to pass ordinances to ensure a prosperous future, address development-related issues and provide necessary services for our residents.”

Like Bexar County, San Antonio included abortion rights among its priorities. It also called for the state to support Medicaid expansion to provide health insurance to low-income residents, something Republicans remain reluctant to touch.

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Andrea Drusch

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.