With a nod to “Auld Lang Syne,” there’s plenty about 2019 that shouldn’t be forgot. There were successes, slight improvements, and setbacks—which hopefully will be remedied in 2021 when the legislature meets again.
The big win for Austinites came when an appeals court struck down the city of Austin’s attempted ban on short-term rentals. All of the city’s concerns about noise, public nuisance, and disorderly conduct were already covered by local laws, the court found, while parts of the ordinance were unconstitutional. Though the fight likely isn’t over, Texans who value their constitutional rights can breathe a little easier today.
A far less complete victory for Austinites (and those who work in the city) came in October, when the City Council reversed its ill-advised legalization of homeless “camping” in public spaces.
An increasing number of homeless people on the streets led to a marathon City Council meeting on June 20, after which the council essentially legalized camping, squatting, sleeping, and panhandling in public spaces (with the very notable exception of City Hall).
The error of this new policy soon became apparent; public health and safety issues began to emerge—people defecating in public, open drug use, and mentally ill individuals intimidating (and in some cases attacking) passersby. Police felt their hands were tied and downtown workers and business owners were frustrated — and scared.
It got so bad that Gov. Greg Abbott intervened, sending in the Texas Department of Transportation to clean up some encampments. The City Council in October amended the ordinance, banning camping on sidewalks and close to the ARCH homeless shelter. Abbott also set aside five acres of land for the homeless to camp; it’s designed to be a safe, sanitary, and centralized location where charities can deliver food and other services.
This is by far the most compassionate approach. It’s not compassionate to simply enable those with serious mental illnesses, substance abuse issues, and trauma to spiral downward in plain view while simultaneously creating public health crises. As the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed last week, homelessness itself is not a crime. But allowing our fellow human beings to destroy themselves on our streets is no act of kindness either.
Going forward, the city needs to do a better job working with the state and — perhaps most importantly — with nonprofits and the faith community to find lasting solutions.
Finally, many Texans—of all persuasions—had hoped for more in the 2019 legislative session. There were some wins for taxpayers, and some progress on school finance reform. But efforts fell short on some common-sense bills like banning taxpayer-funded lobbying and making it clear that cities can’t mandate paid sick leave.
Texans will expect more of their lawmakers in the next session, especially when it comes to property tax reform and relief.
For the most part, Texas families are just trying to live their lives, pay their bills and ensure their children are safe and happy. It’s the task of government at all levels—local, state and federal—to get out of the way and let them do that.