Point Austin: It's Getting Harder to Stay Weird
Amid state and federal nonsense, it's hard to keep on keepin' Austin
There's an inevitable tinge of defensiveness to the Austin reflex of self-congratulation. If you need to pat yourself on the back, it just might mean there are no other volunteers for the job. Nevertheless, Mayor Steve Adler – irrepressibly optimistic by character and profession – assumed the task again last week at City Council, reprising a declaration from his State of the City speech: "The whole world can be losing its mind, but we're still going to be Austin, Texas."
There was no particular policy impetus for the remark, but in the immediate political context it was defiant: "At the national level, it looks like we're going to be doing away with health care coverage for 24 million people … and our Legislature passes an immigration law that is kind of a 'papers, please' law. But we're focusing on doing what the people want us to do, which is to improve mobility, and work on affordability, so I'm proud of what we're doing."
The implicit defensiveness became literal a few days later, when in the wake of the passage of the anti-immigrant SB 4, Attorney General Ken Paxton and the state of Texas sued Austin, the mayor, and the City Council (et al.), in a pre-emptive attempt to get a court to rule that requiring cities to assume federal immigration enforcement is a constitutional application of state power. That will be a difficult argument to win, and Paxton's brief is a mishmash of grandiose fulminations and misrepresentations of actual local law enforcement policies.
Never mind, responded the mayor, let's have it out before a federal judge. "For five months, we've been on the sidelines while the Legislature has treated Austin's safety like a political football. I'm glad the action is moving to court where it's not about politics, it's about the law. A judge will decide whether the United States of America or Texas determines federal immigration policy, and whether local police and prosecutors have the discretion to keep their communities safe. I was elected by the people of Austin, and I will continue to speak on their behalf."
Phony Tax Relief
Noted elsewhere in this week's issue (see "Something's Gotta Give," May 12) is that SB 4 represents not only arrogant state overreach but yet another unfunded mandate for local governments. On Wednesday morning, Adler was testifying against another one of those, SB 2, which would impose a 5% "rollback rate" cap on local property taxes. The current cap (8%) is already restrictive; in a statement, Adler noted this latest effort is effectively a legislative shell game to distract from the heaviest property tax burden, imposed by state neglect of public schools.
"The City of Austin opposes SB 2 because it would endanger public safety and provide no real tax relief …." Adler said. "SB 2 will result in fewer police officers in our communities, longer response times to fires and medical emergencies, and fewer tools and equipment our first responders need to keep our community safe.
"SB 2 also does not provide real tax relief. Even with the $32 a year that an average Austin homeowner would not pay for their city taxes under this bill, they would still write a check for $263 more on their property taxes due to increasing school district taxes. … [That represents] 75 percent of the total property tax increase experienced by Austin homeowners."
Other local officials have joined Adler at the Capitol, trying to explain to legislators that essential city services are threatened by arbitrary and unrealistic tax limits. But to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it's difficult to make a politician understand something when his re-election depends on his not understanding it.
The state overreach – and persistent hypocrisy that "conservatives" believe in local control, or government closest to the people – certainly doesn't stop there. Last session, at the behest of oil and gas interests, featured the dismantling of local fracking regulations. This one will almost certainly provide free state rein to mega-corps Uber and Lyft, who won't adhere to local public safety regulations in cities where they app-hire freelance taxi drivers. The notorious "bathroom bill" would impose discriminatory mandates on local policies designed simply to treat people equally and with dignity.
Legislators are about to ban "linkage fees," an effort by local governments to mitigate the spiking cost of housing via new development funding of affordable housing. (They've even targeted "density bonuses," a barely adequate attempt to require builders seeking additional entitlements to provide in exchange at least some support for affordability.) If all this isn't enough, the sensible municipal bans on single-use plastic bags – a staggering commercial burden on both the environment and local cleanup costs – are under legislative assault.
Here in Austin, we do like to feel weirdly special, although our political and cultural kin include cities across the nation and indeed the world. At what point will we have to acknowledge that we're forbidden by law, and by our state and federal masters, to be "still Austin" – instead, just another Texas burg ruled by petty, sectarian, and reactionary fools.