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Decisions, Decisions

Austin City Council, F1 development hang in the balance

By Nick Barbaro, Fri., June 17, 2011

Austin city government faces two massive decisions in the next week; it's no exaggeration to say that much of the direction of city government for the next decade will be determined here by the City Council run-off election this Saturday and a possible decision on a Formula One agreement next Thursday.

First things first: The biggest disappointment of the campaign season has been that incumbent Randi Shade has allowed herself to be pushed so far to the right in her run against Kathie Tovo. A woman who came into the public eye as a lesbian mom with respectable Demo­cratic credentials, Shade became the darling of the development lobby during her first term, and now, buoyed by their dollars, has turned to both the tactics and the operatives of the GOP hard right to try and save her political life in this run-off.

With Rick Perry pollster Mike Baselice and tea party organizer Lucas Sheffield both on the payroll, the Shade campaign has gone increasingly negative, and the whisper campaign against Tovo has been intense.

The worst of the grunt work has been done by unaffiliated (and separately funded) PACs and allies such as the Home Builders Assoc­i­a­tion of Greater Austin, who sent out a call to arms early in the run-off campaign noting that "nothing motivates people more than fear, and our Association does not want Randi Shade to lose ... HBA staff has been directed to make the election our number one priority over the next two weeks." But the Shade campaign itself jumped all over the panic button last week with a TV ad that tried to blame recent wildfires on Tovo's opposition to Water Treat­ment Plant No. 4. Water experts on all sides of the issue were quick to call bullshit on that (see Nora Ankrum's "Water Fall" for more), but the point is that Shade seems desperate and has willingly made herself beholden to some people who do not always have the city's best welfare at heart.

Funding Formula?

Which brings us to the second big decision of the week: whether to dedicate $40 million in local tax money to Formula One organizers over 10 years in order to enable the state to give another quarter-billion dollars in tax money to the enterprise.

Of course, there's so much procedural malfeasance afoot that we shouldn't even be considering this issue at this time, but, hey, laws are made to be broken, right, if you're Rick Perry or Susan Combs? And so, faced with the possibility of losing Randi Shade's seat – and with it any likelihood of four council votes for this bizarre scheme – local F1 organizers along with strategist Richard Suttle have pushed this into emergency status, and Suttle was predicting Tuesday that he has the votes to approve the two 10-year contracts next Thursday, sight unseen. (He hasn't yet finished drafting them.)

There's not enough room here – or in this entire paper – to detail all the arguments pro and con. So let me leave you this one thought: If someone tells you they've got a great deal for you and then lies about what that deal is, it's probably not a good idea. The F1 development may indeed be a boon for Austin's economy, and it may or may not be an investment we want to make. But what's being peddled here is the promise that it's not really an investment at all, that our $40 million (well, okay, maybe $36 million) will somehow be reimbursed – which is absolutely, unequivocally, and completely untrue. If we sign this contract to allow the state to give our tax money to F1, that's precisely what they will do, and the best that could possibly happen after that is that any additional money we spend on F1 events could theoretically be reimbursed after the fact, at the sole discretion of Comptroller Combs, after all other obligations under the as-yet-unwritten contracts are paid off.

That's crazy, and it's crazy that we're even considering something like this. Until we know clearly what we're being sold, we shouldn't be buying.

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