The Austin Chronicle

Despite Loss, Prop. 2 Makes Its Point

By Katherine Gregor, November 7, 2008, News

Although Proposition 2 was voted down 52% to 48%, the strong voter sentiment in support of the Stop Domain Subsidies amendment – and by proxy, local businesses – has sent a message to City Council.

"This probably does raise the bar, even though Prop. 2 failed, for any incentive-related subsidies in the future, retail component or not," observed Mayor Will Wynn on election night. "And I'm okay with that." He added, "This council, and future councils, will be very, very judicious about making any incentive deals in the future, unless it's a project with screaming community benefits – for the environment, transportation, affordable housing, and so forth."

Wynn served as the public face of the "Keep Austin's Word" campaign against the charter amendment, but he took care to reiterate (in a post-Obama-win glow on Tuesday night) that his work to defeat it was based on protecting the city's reputation, not any disaffection for locally owned businesses.

"I've always respected the intuitive philosophy, of 'Why give to newcomers but not existing businesses?'" said the mayor, kicking back at a lively Driskill Hotel room party. "The heartburn felt, and political prowess shown, by folks who don't like [the Domain] transaction is apparent to me." Several other council members, including Laura Morrison and Lee Leffingwell, have expressed a commitment to taking some future council actions that reflect Prop. 2 voter sentiment. On Wednesday, Leffingwell said he planned to speak with his colleagues, within the next week or so, about bringing forward a formal city ordinance that bars economic development incentives for large-scale development projects with retail.

Electronic newswire In Fact Daily quoted SDS founder Brian Rodgers on the Prop. 2 aftermath: "We have an election coming up in May with [races for two new] City Coun­cil members and a Mayor. We've got over 130,000 people and a broad coalition and 500 local businesses. We feel like we can be a major player in those elections."

The nonprofit Liveable City had released a report, prompted by Prop. 2, critiquing the city's economic development strategy and use of incentives. Report author Michael Oden, a Liveable City board member and UT professor, recommended that the city add two new formal opportunities for public input on any future economic development incentives. Asked if he supported that recommendation, Wynn admitted he'd "barely glanced at the Liveable City report." But he said: "Can our format be improved? Yes."

On the other hand, said Wynn, "the fundamental irony of the Prop. 2 election is that, regardless of the outcome, policy wasn't going to change," because, since doing the Domain and Mueller deals more than five years ago, council had already amended its economic development policies to bar retail project subsidies. "We haven't done one since; we don't foresee doing one anytime soon," said Wynn.

As of this writing, Prop. 2 lost by just over 10,000 votes, out of 255,823 cast, which includes both Travis Co. votes and early Williamson Co. votes. (In city precincts within Williamson Co., Prop. 2 finally earned 3,241 votes for but 3,609 votes against.) The complexity of the proposed charter amendment language, and its uncertain consequences, likely led many voters to skip the propositions at the end of the ballot. In all, early totals showed 394,952 votes counted in Travis Co. for president – that's over 139,000 more voters than weighed in on Prop. 2. But in all, over 15,000 more votes were cast on Prop. 2 than the less controversial Prop. 1.

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