Public Notice: Happy New Year?
Hoping for new starts at each level of government
Lots of political new beginnings this week and next: The new Congress gets sworn in today in D.C., the new Texas Legislature takes over Tuesday, and the new City Council is seated Monday – with significant shifts in the power blocs at all three levels.
The most anticipated change is at the U.S. House, where a new Democratic majority will try to shake things up and provide some balance to the insanity that has prevailed for the past two years. But don't underestimate the importance of those other two bodies, which may have just as much direct impact on your life and livelihood, and where a different kind of insanity has prevailed for the past two years. Not so bright orange and virulent, but equally disruptive and dysfunctional – with a different set of reckonings coming due.
Our news staff completes its preview this week ("Central Texas Lawmakers Speak Out About the 86th Legislative Session," Jan. 4) of the 86th Texas Lege, where a 12-seat pickup for the Democratic caucus has our local delegation cautiously optimistic about their prospects for a more productive session. And not surprisingly, school finance is high on the priority list for everyone; it's been broken for a while, it's hemorrhaging money, and legislators have increasingly been reaching into Austinites' pockets to plug the hole.
By the end of this biennium, AISD will be sending more of your tax money into the state budget than it spends educating Austin schoolchildren. That total "recapture" figure for 2020 is expected to be just under $800 million, or just over $2,133 for every household in the city. If you live in a typical 2.5-person household, you'll be paying $178 a month to the state – either directly in property taxes, or as a pass-through in increased rent and decreased business profitability. In theory, this pays for educating kids in poorer school districts, but in practice the money can be and is siphoned off for other uses. This despite the fact that the Austin public school system itself serves poor children – 53.3% of its students are economically disadvantaged, 52.2% are considered at risk of dropping out, and 28.2% have limited English proficiency (50% higher than the state average), according to stats from The Texas Tribune. Austinites have been paying this de facto state school tax disproportionately, but other Texas cities have begun to feel the hit, so there's increased hope for action during this session. If not, the system, and our school district, will be fully broken by the time legislators next convene: By 2022, estimated payments will have increased 85% over four years, the recapture tax bite will be well over $200 a month per household, and AISD will have depleted nearly its entire savings reserve.
Then there's City Council, which will be all-Democratic for the first time in the 10-1 era, but where the political divide over land use policy transcends party affiliation. The decades-old split between developers and environmentalists has been rebranded into urbanists vs. preservationists (though without incorporating all of the urbanist principles). Increasingly over the past two years, Council has been at one another's throats over, and often immobilized by, specific land use disputes, and most spectacularly by the large flaming turd formerly known as CodeNEXT. As positions hardened, the divide between two four-member blocs seemed to widen, and over the last two years it became impossible to find either middle ground or alternate solutions to issues where stakeholders on all sides have legitimate concerns.
But now, with Natasha Harper-Madison succeeding Ora Houston in District 1, that 4-4 split is no more, and that could signal a sea change. But don't expect the impasse to break like a logjam, and for townhomes and live/work spaces and public transit to flow forth unfettered once the pure waters of a new land development code are set free. Council's biggest job for the next two years is going to be cleaning up the mess it made of the code rewrite over the last two years, and everyone who worked on the CodeNEXT fiasco knows that all the problems that project had – the lack of policy direction, of project management, of community buy-in – still remain. This was not a matter of having a slightly flawed product killed by arguing over details; this was a deeply flawed product that didn't meet any of its stated goals. It was a dumpster fire, one created by the outgoing Council, which did little to help the process except to fan the flames. There is indeed a path forward toward a land development code that works for everyone, but it begins by taking a step back and rebuilding community trust on all sides.
So far, the Council under Mayor Steve Adler has been quick to take sides; now that he has an electoral mandate, a different dais calculus, and a new-ish city manager, we'll see if he can indeed guide it toward the consensus he talks so much about.