The Austin Chronicle

Political Action Committee Proclaims Support for Convention Center

By Michael King, August 8, 2019, 1:00pm, Newsdesk

In front of City Hall this morning — with City Council poised to vote on raising the Hotel Occupancy Tax to expand the Convention Center — community groups representing the Palm School, homeless services, artists, and musicians declared their opposition to Proposition B, which would block any expansion.

The PHAM political action committee (the acronym represents the four community interests) was organized by former mayoral aide Jim Wick, who stood before about three dozen supporters as he defended the Convention Center expansion and the associated community benefits the group says will flow from it. Over time, said Wick, “The expansion will provide access to $300 million in community benefits,” via both the 2% HOT increase and the related Tourism Public Improvement District agreement between the city and the Downtown hotels.

Those who followed spoke for the four major interests represented in the PAC: Ed McHorse of the End Community Homeless Coalition, musician Nakia on behalf of Music Makes Austin and (just organized) Austin Texas Musicians, Cory Baker of the Long Center, and Paul Saldaña of the Save Palm School Coalition. All spoke in support of the expansion and in opposition to Proposition B, expected to appear on the November ballot.

McHorse cited as precedent the city’s success at dramatically reducing homelessness among veterans and young people. “We know what to do and what works, if we have the resources,” he said. “Proposition B would impair our ability to do what works.” Nakia spoke of growing financial pressures on local musicians and said, “If Austin doesn’t vote against Prop B, there is no other option.” Baker said that we’re in danger of losing “Austin’s soul” represented by its arts community, “If we don’t invest in our future.” Saldaña lamented the steady, incremental losses of Austin’s Mexican-American places and thus its history, and said that preserving Palm School as a museum of that history, with related programs, represents “an opportunity for a comprehensive and healing plan,” enabled by the funding associated with expanding the Convention Center.

A subsequent press release listed some two dozen organizations -- a "partial list" of arts and music groups, business and union organizations, and entertainment venues -- that support the PHAM PAC and oppose Prop. B.

Proposition B proponents – the group “Unconventional Austin,” which underwrote the petition campaign to put the proposition on the ballot – argue that the city can support all these community benefits right now, simply by redirecting more of the current HOT funding to these efforts – over and above the currently legislated caps of 15% for cultural arts and 15% for historic preservation. Wick responded that attorneys for both the Texas Municipal League and the city have reviewed the legal issues over the past three years and consistently said that such additional spending is prohibited by law, and that only the expansion allows the 2% increase that enables additional funding.

“We’ve had three votes to support the expansion,” said Wick. “The Council voted, the Tourism Commission voted, and the Visitors Impact Task Force all voted to support the expansion. There will likely be a vote by Council today to move forward on raising the HOT. It’s time to move forward.”

Travis County government is currently at odds with the city over the potential use of the 2% increase, preferring that funding be directed to a redevelopment of the County Exposition Center. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Commissioners testified on the issue before Council this morning. Wick said the PAC takes no position on that dispute. “We’re here to support the community benefits.”

Finally, Nakia was asked if he believes the Prop. B supporters are sincere in their insistence that they indeed support local music and arts and only want an opportunity for the public to vote on the proposed Convention Center expansion. “It’s bullshit,” he answered. “They have some other agenda – and it’s not supporting music, or the community interests represented here.”

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