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Texas Lawmakers Take a Pass on Construction Permitting

The topics that Gov. Greg Abbott asked Texas Lawmakers to address during the recently concluded special session included an attempt to rein in the ability of local governments to create certain restrictions for construction permits. Many saw this as part of an overall assault on the authority of local governments like cities, counties, and school districts to make decisions in their own communities in favor of centralizing power in Austin. Others, including Abbott, argue local governments are out of control and are starting to make Texas resemble California.

Abbott had asked lawmakers to address 20 subjects in the month-long special session ranging from public restroom access to the state's unacceptably high maternal mortality rate as well as new abortion restrictions. While legislation was passed on roughly half of the 20 topics, construction permitting was not one of them.

Senate Bill 13 and House Bill 164, identical proposals, were aimed at speeding up the permitting processes in cities around the state. The author of the House version was Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, who is a former construction executive. Because he also consults on construction projects, Workman came under fire for an alleged conflict of interest. He denied his business had anything to do with the bill he was trying to pass.

Among other things, Workman's bill would have made it illegal for nongovernmental jobsite monitors like the ones utilized by the Workers Defense Project to visit and report on construction sites in Austin. Workman’s bill would have also banned other requirements for expedited permitting with the exception of additional fees to cover costs of processing those permits.

At the behest of the Workers Defense Project and over the objections of some in the business community, the Austin City Council last year overwhelmingly approved an expedited construction permitting program. At that time, Austin Chamber of Commerce President Michael Rollins argued the additional requirements would “create a disincentive and customers will not avail themselves of the program.”

“If more projects can move forward at a faster pace, the City can receive accelerated benefits in the form of property taxes, affordable housing, and related economic activity. Conversely, proposals to add further costs and delays to the expedited permitting program will make it harder for Austin residents to live and grow their businesses here,” Rollins said in a letter to the City Council.

As the legislation to nix that kind of program was being debated this summer in The Legislature, the Workers Defense Project told Construction Citizen the group was hoping lawmakers would focus on other issues.

"We have had conversations with Texas policy makers about our disagreement with legislation like HB 164 that increases the tax burden on Texas homeowners while creating dangerous working conditions and cutting the pay for hardworking men and women who build our cities, roads and bridges,” said Sam Robles, Communications Director with WDP. “Instead, we hope the legislature will focus on passing meaningful public school finance reform."

Ultimately, the legislation aimed at canceling out some local restrictions for building permits did not make its way to Gov. Abbott’s desk. It was passed by the Texas Senate but stalled out in the Texas House before time ran out.