Election Results: Meat and Potatoes
Travis County, Austin ISD come up big on bond projects
It may not match the tectonic political shifts in Virginia and New Jersey, but Travis County voters reaffirmed their progressive credentials on Tuesday night with overwhelming support for public investment bonds.
Heading up the Nov. 7 ballot were two countywide propositions: Prop A, with $93.44 million for roads and transportation, and Prop B, $91.49 million for parks and land conservation. The county hoped to rebound from 2015's failed $287 million courthouse proposal, and instead emulate their 2011 success with transport and parks bonds. This year, not only did both bonds pass, but they did so with massive margins. Both were hovering around 70% when early voting came in just after 7pm, and support actually increased on Election Day. When the final votes were tallied, Prop A passed with 73.22% support, while Prop B got 73.17%.
Moreover, turnout was up from the 2011 election. Off-year elections with no major elected office on the ballot are notorious for low participation, and in objective terms 2017 was still nothing to boast about. But over 94,000 Travis County residents (roughly 13% of registered voters) cast their ballot this year, up from under 51,000 (9%) six years ago.
County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said the county will now examine exactly what it did right to earn such resounding approval. Whatever it was, she said, "We certainly want to repeat it." However, she said she suspected it came down to the bonds coming from "a quality process – that there was nothing speculative in there, just meat-and-potato projects."
Eckhardt's success proved just the beginning of Tuesday's pro-public investment wave. Voters also backed school bonds in the Eanes, Lago Vista, Lake Travis, and Leander districts. Lake Travis scored a second victory, as voters also approved a tax swap initiative, moving part of the tax burden from the maintenance and operations rate (which is subject to recapture from the state) to the interest and sinking part of the bill (which is not). That leaves an extra $2.1 million in district finances, without raising the overall tax rate. Lake Travis ISD Superintendent Dr. Brad Lancaster called the results "clear indications of the support for our public schools that defines our great community."
But the biggest news of the night was the 72% support for AISD's "go big or go home" bond package of $1.05 billion. Supporters were quietly confident since early voting began, in spite of opposition from the Travis County Taxpayers Union, and the newly formed Save East Austin Schools PAC. Both turned out to produce more sound and fury than impact; the TCTU's decision to put signs in East Austin, rather than their West Austin/Western Travis County base, failed to ignite real opposition. Even a last-minute email from Travis County GOP chair Matt Mackowiak urging bond opponents to take five friends to vote "no" fell flat.
Celebrating the win Tuesday evening, Ken Zarifis, president of AISD employee union Education Austin, pointed to the massive turnaround from the district's last bond election in 2013. That year, voters rejected two out of four bonds proposed, and the two that passed squeaked by with just over half the vote. "As a 20-year teacher and labor leader, I can't express how important this bond was as a first step into the future of AISD," he said, turning his attention to the heavy lifting now to be done, including tackling the city's legacy of segregation. "Hopefully the success of this election will not obscure the need for AISD to engage in more significant ways with its communities to address the historical inequities felt most keenly in East Austin, but also in schools and communities on both sides of I-35."
AISD Board President Kendall Pace called the result a significant sign that popular support for public education still runs high in Travis County. "People don't just like public schools," she asserted. "They love them." Pace also felt that the district had learned from its research, vetting, and messaging failures in 2013. "It wasn't just, 'How about this piece of pork here?'" she said.
So now comes the construction. Pace said the AISD board will continue meeting with the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee, as well as quickly spinning operations up on the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee, to prioritize work on the most essential projects. In Travis County, Eckhardt said commissioners will be working this week on a new process to streamline everything from breaking ground to cutting ribbons. She said the county hopes to have all projects in the bond completed within five years.