Texas House members voted Thursday to advance a bill that would lower the fees that cities require for tree removal — a measure similar to one Gov. Greg Abbott already vetoed, while a bill the governor requested for the special session remains stalled in committee.
House Bill 7 would require cities charging tree removal fees to allow the planting of replacement trees as an option to offset fees. The House gave the measure preliminary approval on a 132-11 vote. Two Democrats opposed the bill along with nine Republicans, many of them members of the conservative Freedom Caucus.
Abbott vetoed a similar bill in June, saying it did more to protect cities than landowners and calling any restrictions on what people can do with their trees “an assault on private property rights.”
“I think it was a poke in the eye of the governor,” said Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, who voted against HB 7. “It’s insulting to the taxpayers who are funding our special session that the Senate has moved on the vast majority of legislation in the call and we have practically addressed two issues: The sunset safety net and a bill the governor already vetoed.”
The slow pace of House movement during the special session — while the Senate has stayed until early morning hours to move bills through quickly — has further highlighted tensions between conservatives and moderates at the Capitol.
On Wednesday, the Texas Senate approved a bill to overturn all local tree ordinances in the state, stipulating that citizens own the vegetation on their property and can do with it what they wish. Abbott requested that measure as one of 20 items to take up during the special session, partially citing his own experience trying to cut down a pecan tree at his Austin home.
The House version of that bill is still pending in the Urban Affairs Committee.
At least 90 Texas cities and counties have rules providing tree protections. Austin’s requires landowners to get permission to cut down large trees and requires proof of a safety risk or development constraints to cut down certain species with a trunk diameter of at least 24 inches.
Representatives from Austin and other cities have defended their ordinances, saying old-growth trees reduce flooding and energy use, and have decried the various conservative moves to overturn local measures.
Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, the author of HB 7, said his bill was compatible with others targeting tree ordinances.
“I’m not here to support these ordinances; they don’t exist in my district,” he said. “I’m here to get some relief.”
Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, chairman of the Texas Freedom Caucus, said Abbott told members repeatedly during a Conservative Coalition meeting Monday that HB 7 is not what he wanted. Schaefer voted for the bill because it’s a “little itty bitty positive step forward,” he said, but called its movement forward while others stall a clear message from House Speaker Joe Straus to Abbott.
He and other conservatives said they’re worried about getting through Abbott’s agenda during the special session.
“Look, all we have is our voices,” Schaefer said. “We don’t have a gavel to make things move.”