State Sen. José Menéndez killed a controversial bill dealing with city annexations overnight after he filibustered for more than two hours late Sunday and ran out the legislative clock.
He and other urban Texas Democrats opposed the legislation because a provision allowing land use regulations around some military bases had been stripped out.
“How could I sit idly by and not try to do what I could to defend the military bases?” Menéndez said Sunday night.
The move drew the immediate ire of Senate Bill 715 supporters who said the legislation was meant to give Texas homeowners a say when a city wants to include their land within its borders.
Sen. Donna Campbell authored the bill and called the successful filibuster a “black eye” on those who believe in democracy. The New Braunfels Republican accused Menéndez and other Democrats of “doing the dirty work” of urban lobbyists.
“There is no American ideal more important than the right to vote, and yet that is exactly the ideal that was defeated tonight by those doing the dirty work of Austin, San Antonio, and Houston lobbyists as they ran out the clock on the will of the people,” Campbell said in a statement early Monday.
It was a small but notable victory for Democrats near the end of a legislative session that has been dominated by conservative issues. And it came as the legislature teeters on the brink of a follow-up session caused by Republican infighting on transgender Texans’ use of public bathrooms and property tax rollback elections.
SB 715 would have required a petition or election when a city wants to annex land or neighborhoods outside its city limits. Supporters said that some people intentionally live in unincorporated areas outside any city limits and should have a say if a town wants to include their land in its jurisdiction.
But opponents said city streets often created the access that connects such neighborhoods to schools, businesses and the rest of the area but don’t pay the municipal property taxes other people do. Menéndez said people outside city borders are also often served by the police and fire departments of nearby cities.
He other San Antonio lawmakers also saw the bill as a way to protect land near military bases from being developed in ways that could interfere with operations. They argued that some government entity needs to regulate planning and zoning matters such as building heights, light pollution and street placement.
Developments that are outside any city limits in Texas typically do not have any planning or zoning regulations. State Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) had successfully added an amendment that would give cities planning and zoning jurisdiction of land outside their borders but also close to military bases in some cases.
“That was a true act of political courage last night,” Jeff Coyle, the City of San Antonio’s director of Government and Public Affairs, told the Rivard Report. “Sen. Menéndez and Rep. Gutierrez stood up for our military and for our city when others wouldn’t. Because of their actions, many San Antonians’ interests were protected – whether they are aware of it or not.”
If SB 715 had passed, the 17-year annexation agreement between San Antonio and the suburban municipality of Converse would have been exempt – but the City’s plans to annex land surrounding various military bases and developments on the fringe of city limits would have screeched to a halt, pending a ballot measure.
Menéndez and others feared that if land is developed improperly near military bases, it could heighten their chances of being shuttered in case the federal government undertakes another Base Realignment and Closure process. Lawmakers said development encroachment is considered when bases are being evaluated for closure.
President Donald Trump’s proposed budget calls for a new round of military base closures in 2021. The administration estimates it could save more than $2 billion by 2027 by eliminating “unnecessary infrastructure.”
Encroaching development brings with it training and security issues, said Councilman Joe Krier (D9), who sits on the City of San Antonio’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee and is a tri-chair of the Military Transformation Task Force. San Antonio has intimate knowledge of the military’s BRAC procedures: Kelly Air Force Base, now Port San Antonio, closed in 2001 and Brooks Air Force Base, now Brooks City Base, closed in 2002.
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“It is ironic to me that we had this debate on Memorial Day weekend,” Krier told the Rivard Report. “From the vantage point of a guy that [worked with] these base-closing efforts, I know how important Camp Bullis is to San Antonio and how important the military is to San Antonio.”
Randolph Air Force Base, Ft. Sam Houston, and Lackland Air Force Base, which are collectively known as Joint Base San Antonio, and Camp Bullis all call San Antonio home.
The time is now to strengthen these bases if they want to distance themselves from the chopping block, Krier added. “The BRAC decisions are not made in the year of the BRAC. … In 2019 the Pentagon will already have a list. That cake will already be in the oven.”
Before the decision came to close Kelly AFB, hundreds of people told Krier that “they will never close Kelly … well, look what happened.”
Krier suspects that part of the reason some legislators and others are opposed to bills that would protect these bases is looming interest in the land itself.
“I get the sense … that there are developers that would shed no tears if Camp Bullis closed,” he said.
But Menéndez said that if House amendments protecting the bases had made it out of conference committee, he still would have opposed the bill. He said many larger cities wouldn’t be able to properly manage or prepare for the sprawl outside their borders under the legislation.
As Menéndez spoke during his filibuster, the Texas House voted to approve SB 715. At one point in the upper chamber, state Sen. Carlos Uresti, another Democrat from San Antonio, interrupted Menéndez to ask questions.
“What if a man and wife own property together?” Uresti asked. “Would both of them get to vote, or would only the person who’s name is on the deed get to vote?”
“That’s an excellent question,” Menéndez responded. “You can’t treat some voters different than other voters, and SB 715 does exactly that — it would create a special class of votes just because they own land.”
Kirk Watson began asking Menéndez questions around 11:30 p.m.
“One of the things that bothers me about this bill is it doesn’t treat cities consistently,” Watson said referring to a provision in SB 715 that exempted cities with populations of at least 500,000.
If SB 715 were intended to give citizens the right to vote, Watson rhetorically asked, why was the legislation seeking to treat cities with various populations differently?
“Taxpayers are taxpayers, if they’re living in Tarrant or Bexar or Travis County,” Menéndez replied. “Why should the taxpayers outside the enclaves have to pay for city services around them?”
As the clock struck midnight, Watson, D-Austin, raised a point of order on SB 715 and pointed to a section of the law that prohibits the Legislature from considering legislation within 24 hours of the last day of the session. The last day of the 85th Texas Legislature is Monday.
Lt. Gov Dan Patrick accepted the point of order, and SB 715 was effectively dead.
In her statement, Campbell vowed the matter was not over.
“This issue is not going away, we have the votes, and the people will ultimately be victorious,” she said.
Aman Batheja contributed to this report.