Building on the Past
Normally, setting a bond package is a fairly top-down and low-impact exercise, but this process has not been normal. Ever since last winter, when City Manager Jesus Garza presented his first list of potential candidate projects for a 1998 bond election, the packaging process has spawned skirmishes and spats, public blowouts and back-room deals, most of which reflected the tension between Austins Today and Tomorrow. As a result, there seems to be confusion about what's actually on the ballot ñ which projects made the cut, and which ones went bye-bye (see p.26 for an item-by-item rundown of the bond propositions).
Mostly, the Austin Today forces won out, which is understandable given the unusually active role played by ordinary citizens in this bond packaging process. Both the ad hoc Citizens Bond Advisory Committee and the various boards and commissions overseeing specific city departments gravitated away from the big-ticket, world's-great-city projects ñ like a new City Hall/ Central Library ñ and toward small-change line items that addressed current needs long ignored by previous councils and city staffers ñ like new restrooms and playscapes at the parks. "A lot of what's on the ballot is catching up with previous growth," says Councilmember Daryl Slusher. "And doing it better this time."
Even at that, the citizens' package ended up requiring some winnowing, especially after the City Council proved unable to resist temptation and inserted its own desired Austin Tomorrow projects ñ like "destination parks" ñ into what was understood to be a totally citizen-driven process. This is how we got to the council theatrics of late July and August, in which the usual summer marquee attraction ñ the adoption of the new city budget ñ was thoroughly upstaged by both public and conspicuously private machinations within a City Council theretofore famous for speaking with one voice.
And now we have the sausage on the November ballot, along with a somewhat less clean-and-shiny-looking council, and a few (at least mildly) disenchanted citizens. "There are definitely projects that are worthy and needed and that were left out of this package," says Slusher, "but you have to balance that against what the taxpayers can afford, and I think this is the best balance we can achieve in that situation."
The electoral picture has been further muddled by the unrelated, but now incorporated, struggles over the fate of Palmer Auditorium, City Coliseum, and Town Lake Park. The two propositions ñ Nos.11 and 12 ñ require no bond debt, but their presence on the ballot has inevitably led them to be lumped in with the other bonds and to be judged by voters ñ kindly or harshly ñ along with the whole package (see p.24 for more on the Coliseum/Auditorium project).
Getting Out the Vote
At least 4% of Austinites are predisposed to judge it kindly, and typically that's all you need at the ballot box to win a bond election. Even last May's bond vote ñ widely publicized citywide and pushing the hottest of Austin's political hot buttons ñ drew about one in 16 eligible Austinites (11% of registered voters) to the polls. That number was itself inflated by the aggravated and motivated residents of newly annexed areas like Circle C Ranch, who turned out in record numbers with the express purpose of punishing Mayor Kirk Watson, and voted heavily against even the least controversial of the three May ballot items.
But this, obviously, is not a typical Austin bond election, because it's being held concurrently with a November general election. And since that circumstance was prohibited in this state until last year, there's no precedent to work from. "We'll have a much higher turnout ñ 200,000 voters instead of the usual 45,000 ñ and there's national and statewide dynamics at work," says campaign guru Mark Yznaga, who is currently working with the combined campaign on behalf of the bond package.
"Will Democrats stay home because of Clinton? Will Republicans stay home because Bush seems assured to win? We have all these factors we don't normally have to deal with," Yznaga continues. "Traditionally, in general elections there have been more Democratic voters in Travis County, but with this screwy election year, who knows? If people want the bonds to pass, they better get out and vote for them."
It's Yznaga's job to be under-confident, but it's not surprising that, as he puts it, "there's definitely negativity and opposition to the bonds" among this unusually broad electorate. But this may be more symptomatic of confusion and apathy than of active distaste for the measures themselves. Certainly, there's little reported organized opposition to any specific bond measure, though it seems inevitable that Props. 2 and 4 ñ the parks and libraries bonds ñ will do less well than Nos. 1, 3, and 5, dealing with street improvements, new fire and EMS stations, and flood-control and drainage projects.
Props. 6 through 10 are all water/wastewater revenue bonds ñ paid for by your utility bill, not your tax bill ñ and these usually pass without difficulty, but by the time voters get to them, after having waded through dozens of state and county races and five bond proposals they actually might care about, they may be in a bad mood. This bodes especially unwell for Props. 11 and 12 ñ the Palmer propositions ñ at the very bottom of the list, which would under normal circumstances, now that all the stakeholders around Town Lake are singing from the same page, be a slam dunk.
Then there are those cranky new Austinites in the Annexation Zone ñ which in the Smart Growth era has become the Undesired Development Zone ñ who aren't any happier now than they were in May, being asked to approve a bond package that is conspicuously designed to meet needs in parts of town where they don't live. As Slusher notes, "Once you take out the road projects and the public-safety projects, East and Southeast Austin get more attention than the rest of town combined." He means that as a plus, but it may not be seen as such universally. While, unlike in May, we probably won't see an extraordinary turnout spike in places like Circle C ñ since the folks out there will be going to the polls anyway to vote in the state races ñ we're unlikely to see a less vehemently anti-bond vote.
All of which is good reason for the combined pro-bond campaign to get busy, which they are now starting to do. As with the May bonds, the November package has support from both business and progressive interest groups: The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the S.O.S. Alliance again lieth down together. Unlike with the May bonds, the pro-bond forces are no longer laboring under the burden of the city charter's campaign-finance restrictions; the recent judicial junking of the voter-approved reform ordinance has itself become a bigger story than the bonds.
Yet early voting has already started, so the time for raising money, doing big TV buys, and the like has long passed. "We're working through the grassroots," says Yznaga, adding that "the people who've been working for years on S.O.S. are the backbone of this effort. It helps the other groups" ñ i.e., the Chamber of Commerce ñ "with less experience in this kind of politics. It helps that we have the moderate-business and progressive communities working together, but it doesn't ensure that the bonds will pass."
From Plan to Reality
And what if they do pass? Will these projects, over which the city and its citizens have already acquired scars and bruises, actually come to fruition, and will they be enough to do what this bond package promises?
We all need to remember that, despite the effort that went into crafting the bond list, all of these projects "may" be funded by the bonds themselves; the ballot language itself deals generically with roads, parks, public safety facilities, and so on. After the last few months' trouble, it seems unlikely that the city would dare deviate from the set menu of projects if and when the bonds are authorized. But six years is a long time, and things like recessions, or changes in the political winds emanating from the City Council, can intervene to muck up the best-laid plans. Not that it takes that long for the details to change: After voters approved Prop. 2 on the May ballot, supposedly to purchase land and conservation easements in a well-defined section of the Barton Creek Watershed, the city almost immediately used the funds to purchase land (the JPI tract) outside those well-publicized boundaries.
Which mostly means that the story will only be over if the bonds are thoroughly shellacked at the ballot box next month. If they pass, the task of translating them into a real spending and improvement plan will only have begun. To push it along, the City Council has announced the creation of a standing Bond Oversight Committee, again made up of interested citizens, whose job could be to save this and future City Councils and city managers from themselves. "They'll make sure that the spending plan is balanced, that the money is getting spent properly, and that we're not missing opportunities for savings," says Slusher. "Plus, there's no [citizen] commission overseeing Public Works [the city's Public Works and Transportation Department], so this will help deal with that."
For the citizens and leaders charged with implementing this bond package should the voters so allow, the stakes are very high, since we surely won't be seeing another large-scale bond vote until the next decade. Even if Austin grows half as fast in the next six years as it has in the past six ñ a rate in line with the city's own projections ñ we will have a lot more failing streets and underserved neighborhoods, as well as a lot more pressure to equip Austin with the amenities expected of one of America's largest cities. If the citizens, who just lent the city several hundred million dollars in May, lend it the balance of a billion bucks in November, will we be able to pay for those needs? When and how?
That's not a reason to vote against the bonds, but the thought that a billion dollars in debt is still not enough to repair, let alone reinvent, Austin is pretty damn sobering. One element of Smart Growth that hasn't been widely discussed is a smarter way to fund it. To be specific, Austin Tomorrow's growth, Smart or otherwise, will have to pay not only for itself, but for a measure of the growth we've already had. That means at least moderately higher taxes (on top of any hikes needed to service the new 1998 debt), and new revenue sources and fees, and more aggressive efforts to enhance the current tax base, and more public-private collaboration to provide city services, and more volunteer and philanthropic efforts, and, in all likelihood, a willingness to live without some of the world-class-city trappings we may desire.
And this would probably be a good thing, because as easy as it usually is, relying on tomorrow's debt to pay for yesterday's growth is not what you'd call efficient. The anti-tax, fiscal-responsibility sentiments shadowing this bond ballot may be shallow, but there's a very real iceberg lurking beneath the surface.