Point Austin: Awake in the Hurricane
Enduring the last days of the Lege's biennial cataclysm
We should all take a moment to give thanks that our new political masters – Uber and Lyft – will shortly return to Austin streets, free of the burdens of city regulations that their smaller and local competitors have found quite workable. And we should give thanks as well to the taxi-appers for their direct contributions to the local economy; having spent $10 million imposing a referendum on local voters last May – which they lost handily – they moved on to the greener pastures at the Capitol, where they dropped another $5 million (as of March) on lobbyists eager to persuade legislators that while local laws might be reasonable for the little guys, megacorporations like Uber and Lyft can hardly be expected to condescend to such inconveniences. (See "Lege for Sale?" March 14.)
Some of that financial bounty will no doubt trickle down to their humble municipal servants, although it is true that any regulatory expenses will now accrue to the state, a policy in keeping with the tradition of using the gas tax, paid disproportionately by city drivers, to subsidize suburban highways and consequent sprawl development. KUT's Audrey McGlinchy reports that many Austin ride-hailing drivers are already re-enrolling with Coke and Pepsi, though with very mixed emotions, since they say they've been better paid by the local companies. "The other companies may quit doing business because Uber's got a deeper pocket or some other reason," one driver told McGlinchy. "Nobody knows the future."
True enough, although past performance is one indicator. Earlier this week, Uber conceded it had underpaid New York drivers by millions, and promises to repay – although reports suggest it's still shifting local taxes unfairly onto its largely defenseless freelance drivers. More than likely – as has happened elsewhere, and as the returning Austin drivers fear – the big dogs will undercut their smaller competitors for market share, in anticipation of higher prices down the line. Any remaining full-time drivers – "independent contractors" all, including the fledging taxi co-opers – will find themselves scrambling and competing for diminishing returns. As the saying goes, when elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.
Call Them Irresponsible
That's not the only gift we can thank our Lege for, of course. An idealistic Austin attempt to address housing affordability by creating a "linkage fee" program for new development, thereby subsidizing affordable housing – an idea that has worked well elsewhere – wasn't allowed to get past the brainstorming stage here, where it surfaced prominently in the report of Mayor Adler's Racism Task Force ("City's Racism Task Force Unveils Report," April 4).
Thanks to the housing industry lobby ("No New Taxes!"), linkage fees never had much of a chance, although density bonuses – which everybody agrees are inadequate to the task – will apparently be left in place, at least for this session. As I write, it's not yet clear what will happen to the highly propagandistic attempt to "cap" local property taxes and force routine rollback elections, as a way to choke off community resources that the Lege itself refuses to supply. As is now traditional, rather than address dismal public school funding – which is by far the main driver of local property tax increases – the Lege blames cities and school districts for its own irresponsibility.
I don't envy the Chronicle's Mary Tuma and her session beats; she's been tasked to recount the determination of the GOP's hard-liners to impose even greater restrictions on women needing reproductive health care, including the needlessly cruel enforcement of "fetal burial" requirements. And then there's the ongoing crusade to terrorize immigrants, and to arm high school bullies (official and amateur) with better ways (as if they needed them) of discriminating against and humiliating transgender students, for the crime of existing.
There have been a few defensive victories. On Wednesday, word was Houston Rep. Garnet Coleman had managed to sabotage both the property tax cap and the worst form of the "bathroom bill" in a last-minute maneuver – whether they will rise like the undead in a special session is yet to be seen. And a plastics industry campaign to undo single-use bag bans in several Texas cities (including Austin) – a literally conservative policy if there ever was one – is apparently dead, though that fight now moves to the Texas Supreme Court, not exactly a friendly venue for environmental protection.
So, as the clock winds down and the dust begins to settle, the amount of damage done to Texas by our Republican masters is not quite ready for a full accounting. It remains a shame that we have to dread the Legislature the way the Gulf Coast dreads hurricane season, and then spend the next two years cleaning up the mess. As the song goes, "If it keep on raining, the levee gonna break ... Some people are still sleepin', some people are wide awake."