With a little help from Charles Dickens, Mayor Steve Adler delivered a mixed but certainly subdued “State of the City” address Wednesday night at City Hall. It’s the “best of times” for the city’s “Golden Moment” of successfully addressing its “major challenges.” And it’s the “worst of times” for the “looming shadow” of sabotage by state government.
There was less fanfare overall for the 2019 SOTC event, eschewing the big crowds and ritualized applause of Adler’s earlier efforts – no Zach Scott theatrics, and the Council chamber crowd visibly reduced by the 5pm rush-hour timing (earlier in the day, oncoming storms threatened an outright postponement). With his Tale of Two Cities theme, the mayor apparently intended to signal that the threat of legislative action against city governments – specifically, bills advancing property tax caps that would cripple local jurisdiction funding and even effective budget-planning – is quite serious.
He said the threat is “large and immediate, and today casts a looming shadow over our city and cities across Texas. In my forty years, our city and Texas’ cities have never been so aggressively under attack by the state.” In a brief press conference following his address, he reiterated that it appears some form of the tax-capping legislation will advance to passage, and said that he felt obligated to “let people know what is happening.”
Nevertheless, much of his address was devoted to traditional boosterism of city programs, with the mild pizazz of three brief video insertions featuring Council members and local advocates describing the city’s efforts to address “Affordability, Mobility, and Equity.” Council Member Greg Casar, for example, did a brief walkabout promoting affordable housing; CM Jimmy Flannigan asked Austinites to join the Council in finding solutions to traffic problems; Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza described the economic inequities facing her southeast District 2 residents, and challenged residents to support city efforts at redistribution.
Before he returned to the threat represented by state action, Adler touted an optimistic litany of economic indicators:
• unemployment lower than the state average, fifth lowest nationally
• “61% of all [Texas] venture capital activity … happened in the Austin area”
• major corporate relocations or expansions
• U.S. News & World Report No. 1 ranking for cities (despite low Texas ranking)
He followed that with city works-in-progress:
• Affordable housing bonds, Strategic Housing Blueprint, “Unlock Affordability” resolution and private investment “Strike Fund”; progress on land use code
• Progress against homelessness, “Pay for Success” initiative; child homelessness cut in half (one of few applause lines)
And so on. Here and there in the list, Adler inserted items enjoying less Council consensus than the others – e.g., Convention Center expansion as a potential revenue source for homelessness programs.
Shifting toward mobility, the mayor linked it to affordability – that addressing affordability requires changes in transportation – and he cited a foreboding statistic. “Today, 74% of people commute to work alone in a car. When our population doubles in the next 20 years or so, with road infrastructure only able to expand by about 15%, if we still have that percentage of people driving alone on our roads during rush hour, no one will be able to move.”
He summarized progress on the 2016 Mobility Bond, praised Project Connect, and exhorted his listeners to support mass transit, including “dedicated lanes” north, south, east and west. But in a line certain to provoke backlash from transit advocates, he included the goal “to not lose any car lanes,” meaning any route down Guadalupe – “maybe doing things like tunneling under the Drag and moving cars under that stretch of Guadalupe.” Visionary or not – why not an entire subway system? – the price tag on that proposal (with all the rest) is yet to be contemplated.
Adler was blunt on racial inequities: “Race issues remain our most significant equity challenge, and we have begun to really address the institutional racism that exists in our community. There is no justification for having the ten-year differential in life expectancy that exists in Austin depending on whether you live on the east or west side of town.” The subsequent list included the Equity Office, diversity training, specific initiatives in health care and against sexual assault, and so on.
But the closing burden of the speech returned to the threat posed by state legislation. Adler said a 2.5% annual property tax cap (as promoted by Republican leadership) would mean a $51.7 million 2019-20 deficit for Austin; a 3.5% cap (as recently approved by the Senate) would mean more than a $35 million deficit. He called the legislative push against cities a “manufactured crisis,” and said bluntly, “The state has declared war against its cities and we must be prepared to defend ourselves as best we can.”
Adler reiterated his frequent charge that the legislative failure to address public school finance reform is the root of the property tax problem, but primarily emphasized that if the caps are imposed, new programs will disappear and existing programs – especially including public safety, 70% of the budget – will be cut. Moreover, the structure of the pending legislation – allowing November “rollback” elections following budget preparations – would undermine long-term contracts and, he said, play havoc with the city’s credit rating.
“Such annual elections will cost millions and create tremendous uncertainty,” he said. “They undermine our credit rating by making it impossible to make long-term commitments.” He attributed the state moves to “politics untethered to sound public policy.”
Afterward, Adler told a small group of reporters that if the legislation passes, it would likely require the city to prepare two budgets – one above the cap and one below, if the voters reject any increase. He was at a loss to explain the politics underlying the GOP push, considering that it will hit presumably Republican-leaning suburbs and counties as hard as it will the cities that Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have spoken of with contempt.
He agreed that they must believe that this ideological retrenchment will help them next November in the general election, but countered, “They’re reading from an old playbook. The 2018 election*[correction below] showed that.”
In sum, while the mayor (and Council members by video) worked hard at remaining upbeat about Austin’s future, the “looming cloud” of the Legislature “war” on cities definitely dampened the mood. “It breaks my heart that the largest, looming risk we face is our own state government,” Adler reiterated in closing. “It is a self-imposed and manufactured threat.”
He ended with a hopeful if fairly wan reprise: “Ultimately, we will prevail because we will remain true to being Austin.”
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