Adler: Lege Has "Declared War" on Texas Cities
The mayor's State of the City applauded local efforts and condemned state attacks
With a little help from Charles Dickens, Mayor Steve Adler delivered a mixed but certainly subdued "State of the City" address on April 17 at City Hall. It's the "best of times" for the city's "Golden Moment" of successfully addressing its "major challenges." And it's the "worst of times" for the "looming shadow" of sabotage by state government.
The Tale of Two Cities theme signaled that the threat of legislative action against city governments – specifically, bills advancing property tax caps that would cripple local jurisdiction funding and even effective budget planning – is "large and immediate, and today casts a looming shadow over our city and cities across Texas," the mayor said. "In my 40 years, our city and Texas' cities have never been so aggressively under attack by the state." In a brief press conference following his address, Adler reiterated that it appears some form of the tax-capping legislation will advance to passage, and said that he felt obligated to "let people know what is happening."
Despite this dour warning, much of the SOTC was devoted to traditional boosterism of city programs, including guest videos from Council Members Greg Casar and Jimmy Flannigan and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, along with local advocates, detailing the city's responses to the challenges of affordability, mobility, and equity. Adler touted an optimistic litany of economic indicators – low unemployment, high venture capital activity, major corporate relocations, and another No. 1 ranking on a best-place-to-live list, this one from U.S. News & World Report. That economic vitality provided a jumping-off point for Adler's praise of the city's big steps toward increasing affordable housing and making progress on ending community homelessness, but continued progress on that front will also require changes in transportation. As he pivoted to mobility, Adler cited a foreboding statistic: "Today, 74% of people commute to work alone in a car. When our population doubles in the next 20 years or so, with road infrastructure only able to expand by about 15%, if we still have that percentage of people driving alone on our roads during rush hour, no one will be able to move."
He summarized progress on the 2016 Mobility Bond, praised Project Connect, and exhorted his listeners to support mass transit, including "dedicated lanes" north, south, east, and west. But in a line certain to provoke backlash from transit advocates, he included the goal "to not lose any car lanes" – meaning any route down Guadalupe – "maybe doing things like tunneling under the Drag and moving cars under that stretch of Guadalupe." Visionary or not – why not an entire subway system? – the price tag on that proposal (with all the rest) is yet to be contemplated.
Adler was blunt on racial inequities: "Race issues remain our most significant equity challenge, and we have begun to really address the institutional racism that exists in our community. There is no justification for having the 10-year differential in life expectancy that exists in Austin depending on whether you live on the east or west side of town." The action list included the Equity Office, diversity training, specific initiatives in health care and against sexual assault, and so on.
But the closing burden of the speech returned to the threat posed by state legislation. Adler said a 2.5% annual property tax cap (as promoted by Republican leadership) would mean a $51.7 million 2019-20 deficit for Austin; a 3.5% cap (as recently approved by the Senate) would mean more than a $35 million deficit. Afterward, Adler told reporters that if the legislation passes, it would likely require the city to prepare two budgets – one above the cap and one below, if the voters reject any increase. He was at a loss to explain the politics underlying the GOP push, considering that it will hit presumably Republican-leaning suburbs and counties as hard as it will the cities that Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have spoken of with contempt. He called the legislative push against cities a "manufactured crisis," and said bluntly, "The state has declared war against its cities and we must be prepared to defend ourselves as best we can."
He agreed that they must believe that this ideological retrenchment will help them next November in the general election, but countered, "They're reading from an old playbook. The 2018 election showed that."