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House approves tree removal bill, breaking from Abbott and Senate

The Texas House has given early approval to a bill that would allow property owners to plant new trees to offset municipal fees for tree removal on their land.

Trees lining Westlake Drive in Austin.

The Texas House added a potential wrinkle to Gov. Greg Abbott's special session agenda on Thursday, giving early approval to a bill that would allow property owners to plant new trees to offset municipal fees for tree removal on their land.

The initial 132-11 vote on House Bill 7, a compromise between builder groups and conservationists, is a replica of legislation from this spring's regular legislative session that Abbott ultimately vetoed, saying the bill did not go far enough. His preference: barring cities altogether from regulating what residential homeowners do with trees on their property. 

“I believe we can do better for private property owners in the upcoming special session,” Abbott wrote in his veto notice.

Thursday's vote is yet another signal that the House is open to charting its own course on Abbott's 20-item special session agenda. Leadership in that chamber wasn't thrilled to be coming back for another legislative session anyway, after putting a fork in this spring's efforts by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Senate to pass a bill restricting bathroom use among transgender Texans.  

The vote also puts the lower chamber at odds with the Senate’s efforts to take on local tree ordinances, which exist in more than 50 cities in Texas.

The upper chamber narrowly passed a bill on Wednesday that aligns with Abbott's wishes; under that measure, which is opposed by conservationists and municipal officials, cities could still regulate tree-cutting on large-scale residential and commercial projects.

A similar version, authored by Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, is stuck in the House Urban Affairs Committee — and it could stay there.

“Well, since we passed [HB 7], I don’t see it as likely that I’ll bring it up,” said state Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston and the chair of the committee.

State Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont and the author of HB 7, said the bill was the result of months of negotiations between developers, conservationists and city officials. He said his bill and laws that go further to undercut local tree ordinances could coexist.

“This isn’t a Republican or Democrat bill, this isn’t a liberal or conservative bill, this is where people choose to live,” Phelan said at a Tuesday committee hearing. “They know it’s there when they decide to live there.”

But Thursday's House vote on HB 7 stoked concerns from some of the lower chamber's most conservative Republicans, who say they fear House Speaker Joe Straus is intentionally obstructing Abbott’s special session agenda. Straus has repeatedly said he is conducting business in the House as he would during a regular session.

"I support the 20 items on the governor's call and am disappointed that the speaker has chosen to obstruct by stalling and moving bills that are outside the scope of the call," said state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, who voted against HB 7. He voted in favor of the same legislation during the regular session.

Phelan ackowledges his bill is a compromise but urged the House to act on legislation he said will provide much-needed relief to developers and builders across Texas. The bill must still pass one more vote in the House. 

Not everyone got what they wanted,” he said.

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