Austin at Large: Money Changes Everything
Or, scenes from the class struggle in Silicon Hills
On Wednesday, June 12, Gov. Greg Abbott rolled up on Wally's Burger Express in Northwest Hills with his posse of GOP leaders to ceremonially sign Senate Bill 2 – the revenue cap thing – in the presence of Wally's owner (Wally is a dog), who "has been struggling due to skyrocketing property taxes," says Abbott's press shop. "Just this year, Wally's property taxes increased 44%. ... By signing Senate Bill 2 into law, we are making tremendous strides to provide long-awaited relief to Texas homeowners and businesses."
As you know from reading the Chronicle, or perhaps from being a carbon-based life-form in Travis County, this is nonsense on stilts. The 3.5% revenue cap now imposed by Abbott's pen has nothing to do with your or my or Wally's property values, which in the burger joint's case did jump 44% (driven by the doubling land value of the parcel on Mesa Drive). The actual "relief" to Wally's tax bill would scarcely cover a Wallyburger combo ($7.99, with a shake).
None of this is surprising, and at least until Texas turns blue, we will hear this old dumb song over and over. But it's especially hilarious coming right after we learned that the owners of 400 waterfront parcels on Lake Austin – 218 of which are more valuable than Wally's Burger Express – have paid no city taxes at all for more than 100 years. Now that's "relief" for you! You'd think Abbott and the gang would head on over to Ski Shores Cafe (one of the subject properties) to celebrate – and to take back all the bad things they've said about the city of Austin and its soul-crushing, job-killing, tax-and-spend liberal ways. No?
What Goes Around, Comes Around
For its part, City Hall is more than happy to drag these lakefront lands into the 21st century and collect about $3 million in annual revenue, which Council Member Greg Casar wants to earmark for homelessness services, because he is actually better at this political game than Greg Abbott. That's a sum comparable to the projected revenue accrual from the hotel bill assessment agreed to by the local lodging industry, also to be earmarked for homelessness services as a quid pro quo for Council's agreeing to expand the Convention Center, which has now also become a battlefield for Austin class struggle as advocates for the poor (and homeless) and working class (who work in hotels) square off against those who believe regular Austinites deserve a larger share of the tourist boom dividend – that is to say, other people's money.
As we follow all the money around, from City Hall to the shores of Lake Austin to Abbott's campaign fundraisers to the Fairmont Presidential Suites to Wally's Burger Express, we find ourselves going in circles. We are not lacking for money to invest in public goods; we create artificial scarcity of those goods as we play stupid, lazy games with taxation. The political power of this posturing is already starting to wear thin as the reality of Austin's economic segregation looms larger.
New Ways To Share The Wealth
For a long time, the point of the progressive spear has been aimed at "developers" as a proxy for Austin's moneyed interests. The city's CodeNEXT conflagration burned down some of that increasingly fragile political framing, although looking at the forces lining up to joust over the Convention Center confirms that our War of the Weirds has yet to end. (It also has yet to end, officially, over Major League Soccer, even as Austin FC's website crashed under the load of eager fans wanting to score expensive seat licenses at the very same time Abbott was at Wally's.)
The ongoing rebalancing of Austin's economic forces will take a while to shape the lives of the younger and wealthier, and younger and poorer, and older and darker people to whom Austin now belongs. For a generation, they watched our politics from the sidelines, engaged very little and confused quite a bit by its obsession with the taxes of middle-class homeowners and affluent commercial properties. Witness the salience of a city homestead exemption as the campaign issue that galvanized Steve Adler's coalition in 2014, and which now seems insignificant and somewhat embarrassing.
As those formerly sidelined communities of interest take the reins of power, we will see much more significant shifts in the paradigm of how we think about, talk about, and go about sharing our prodigious collective wealth. As that happens, do not let anyone tell you that there isn't enough money to house the homeless, feed the hungry, create job opportunities, buy Austin FC seats, and score the Train Wreck Combo at Wally's.