Med School Campaign Goes High-Speed

The campaign for a UT-Austin medical school accelerates

The proposed medical school has generated a lot of media attention, as evidenced by this recent press conference.
The proposed medical school has generated a lot of media attention, as evidenced by this recent press conference. (Photo by Mike Kanin)

Whatever the health care consequences and benefits implicit in the proposed UT-Austin med school and teaching hospital championed by state Sen. Kirk Watson, the campaign will boil down to two things on Nov. 6: whether voters actually make it to the proposition on an extraordinarily long ballot, and whether they'll support the property tax increase it'd take to pay for it all.

We take you to the voting booth on Elec­tion Day. You've clicked your way through the presidential race; the congressional, state, and judicial contests; and those handful of local elections (perhaps even a MUD or two), and are one of the very patient few who've made it all the way down to the various charter change questions and bond issues at the bottom of the ballot.*[See note below] Now, you wade into the confusing world of "approved ballot language," where – though Central Health has done its level best to describe the benefits of what it is proposing – you'll still have to translate the words "ad valorem tax rate" (i.e., property taxes) and the fact that said proposed rate "exceeds the ad valorem tax rate most recently adopted by the district by $0.05 per $100 valuation."

And even if you swallow the idea of a significant tax increase (in percentage terms, at least), you'll still have to decipher a compounded list of projects and come out on the other end thinking: "Yes, Senator Watson, I want to pay a little bit extra in order to transform health care in Travis County." Unless, of course, you just immediately checked the straight ticket line on your e-slate, balked at the rest of the lengthy ballot, and quickly made your escape.

All this explains the need for an informational campaign to pass a ballot question. Watson's effort has been firing on all cylinders for less than a year – not much time in the larger scheme of campaign preparations. But he's been busy. Thus far, med school partisans (that is, Proposition 1 campaigners) have lined up the support of a broad section of Democratic, Latino, women's, and African-American groups (in other words, the people who vote in Travis County). The supporters list – which extends to more than 30 organizations in total (see below) – ranges from the usual Dem-friendly clubs to such institutions as the Austin Chamber of Com­merce and the Real Estate Council of Austin. On top of all of that, there's a political action committee – Keep Austin Healthy, led by longtime consultant Lynda Rife – charged with corralling it all.

There is also some organized opposition. A group called the "Travis County Tax­pay­ers Union" (with "union" undoubtedly sarcastic) headed by GOP and Tea Party activist Don Zimmerman (best known for the Canyon Creek MUD lawsuit against the Department of Justice that sought to gut the Voting Rights Act), is out with signs that urge voters to "stop the bleeding." (That was also the theme of Zimmerman's failed 2008 campaign for county tax assessor-collector, complete with a shameless TV ad suggesting that taxpayers were being forced to sell their kidneys.)

But the toughest Prop. 1 opponents might well be low turnout and voter impatience. Will enough Travis County voters get far enough down the ballot to weigh in on the Central Health tax question?

Watson, who told the Chronicle that he's been speaking "a lot" about the issue (a Facebook supporter joked that Watson will have spoken personally to every potential voter), is aggressively optimistic. He said things are going "extremely well" in support of the proposition, that he believes its proponents are getting out the message, and that he feels confident the result of the Nov. 6 tally will be favorable. "I'm finding a response," he said. "The people throughout the [region] – and maybe for different reasons – see themselves as benefiting from this proposal."

Last Thursday, the focus of the Prop. 1 campaign shifted to women's health. At an Eastside press conference called to illustrate how the five-cent increase in Central Health's portion of regional property taxes would help in that regard, former state Rep. Ann Kitchen delivered the take-home: "If you are a woman, or if you care about a woman, you should wholeheartedly support Proposition 1."

Planned Parenthood's Sarah Wheat added political perspective, with a nod toward past and potential future state-level cuts to women's health care. "As those programs become increasingly targeted by the Legislature," she said, "it is vitally important that here in Austin our community partnerships are able to fill the gap, and make sure that women can continue to access those services."

Wheat's declaration wasn't a direct repetition of the sort of once-in-a-generation stuff that's been at the center of much of the messaging from area honchos. Rather, it emphasized, in stark terms, all that's at stake: Vote for this med school project in order to do for ourselves what the Lege will not.

It's a message that should do the trick – that is, if Watson and company can get it out there.

*"Bottom of the ballot": It's been kindly pointed out to us that the Central Health Proposition 1 is in fact, roughly speaking, at the Top-of-the-Bottom-of-the-Ballot – that is, after the partisan races (ending with county constables) but as the very first on the nonpartisan propositions of various sorts, running on down through MUDs and even the ACC and AISD board races. We stand clarified; VOTE ALL THE WAY DOWN!

As of Oct. 10, listed supporters of Prop. 1 included:

Children's Medical Center Foundation

Hispanic Physicians Association of Austin

Central Texas Alliance of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners

Austin Travis County EMS Association

Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas

Lance Armstrong Foundation

National Association of Black Accountants

Huston-Tillotson University

The Daily Texan

Texas Exes

Austin ECHO

Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce

Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber

Cap City African American Chamber

Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce

The Network of Asian American Organizations

Austin Urban League

Austin Central Labor Council

Austin Progressive Coalition

Real Estate Council of Austin

HousingWorks Austin

Downtown Austin Alliance

Travis County Democratic Party

Austin Environmental Democrats

North By Northwest Democrats

Capital Area Progressive Democrats

South Austin Democrats

Austin Young Democrats

Capital Area Asian American Democrats

Austin Tejano Democrats

Central Austin Democrats

University Democrats

Lake Travis Democrats

West Austin Democrats

Stonewall Democrats

Black Austin Democrats

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city elections, medical school, property taxes, Kirk Watson, Keep Austin Healthy, Ann Kitchen, Sarah Wheat, Don Zimmerman

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