In recent years, the Texas Legislature has passed laws restricting what regulations cities can pass—especially if they originate in Austin. The Lege has overturned local regulations around ride-hailing apps, heritage trees, and fracking, with paid sick leave on the chopping block during the current session. But one bill restricting local control in favor of a blanket statewide rule might actually make the rest of the state look a little more like Austin—because even the staunchest anti-liberal culture warrior can admit that sitting on a restaurant patio with your dog is nicer than sitting on one without a furry pal.
On Tuesday the Senate passed a dogs-in-restaurants bill that would grant patrons around the state the right to sit on the patio of a restaurant with their pup as long as the restaurant allows pets, the dog is leashed, the dog doesn’t have to pass through the interior of the restaurant to get to said patio, and there isn’t an outdoor kitchen to raise health concerns in food prep. The bill was approved by a 30–1 vote, with only Senator Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) voting against it, saying that he wanted to take a stand for local control (a position he didn’t hold when he voted to overturn Austin’s rules on ride-hailing apps and heritage trees).
Members of the legislature, by dint of their jobs, have to spend a fair amount of time in Austin, just because that’s where somebody decided to put the dang Capitol. Often, they’ll complain about it—in 2017 Greg Abbott unleashed a masterpiece of the Austin-bashing genre when he told a gathering of Bell County Republicans, “When you leave Austin and start heading north, you start feeling different. Once you cross the Travis County line, then it starts smelling different. And you know what that fragrance is? Freedom! It’s the smell of freedom that does not exist in Austin, Texas.” In this case, though, lawmakers’ exposure to the Austin way of life yielded a different result, as they learned the joys of eating tacos on a patio with a happy dog sitting at your feet, and they wanted to export a little bit of that pup life to the rest of the state. The bill’s author, Kelly Hancock (R–North Richland Hills), admitted that he was breaking one of his party’s taboos by pushing the bill. “I’m not sure I have ever said this while presenting legislation on the Senate floor, but this bill does closely mirror current city ordinances here in Austin,” he told his colleagues, acknowledging that even in the cultural punching bag that is the state’s capital, sometimes something of value sneaks through: “A good idea is a good idea.”
It’s weird that it’s politically popular in Texas for the governor of the state to take potshots at one of the cities he represents (imagine a Manhattan-bred governor of New York going on about how Buffalo stinks), and it’s representative of our deeply strange culture war that a Republican lawmaker felt the need to pre-apologize for introducing a popular proposal because he first encountered the idea in Austin. But that’s where we are.
Dogs are a source of common ground, though, even in our increasingly divided culture. They are all good boys and good girls, representing a demilitarized zone in the war between right and left. (When popular Twitter account @Dog_Rates posts content with a political edge, followers lament losing something that felt like it belonged to everyone.) So though Hancock acknowledged that Austin’s local ordinances were a surprising place for him to seek inspiration for state law, he quickly sought that common ground. “On a nice day, there’s not much that beats finding an outdoor patio and enjoying a meal with friends or family,” Hancock said in a statement that likely won’t be disputed by anyone, no matter their political persuasion. From there, it’s just a short jump to the idea that our dogs become part of our family (Politifact: true), and all that’s left is for the bill to make its way through the House. It’s unlikely that SB 476 is a true step toward a less polarized, less partisan Texas, but at the very least, it’s a step toward a furrier, friendlier one when you eat outside at a restaurant. In this environment, we’ll take what we can get.