Austin at Large: Let's Take a Vote on That
Forced elections are now routine, but are they "grassroots"?
Unless you're one of maybe eight specific people I know personally, you can safely bet I know more about the Austin Convention Center – history, urban design, finances, hotel tax, state law, tourism marketing, cultural arts funding, all of it, going back 30 years – than you do. You are correct when you say, "MCM, that is nothing to be proud of." It's just been part of my gig. Other than the fact that this is the Chronicle, which is related to SXSW (we're like the Roosevelts), which is the biggest event that takes place there, I don't care about it any more than you do.
The Convention Center saga is the epitome of inside baseball – it involves lots of weird facts and rules and statistics, and those who need to care do so very intensely, but it doesn't impact anyone else's ability to survive and thrive as an Austinite. This is still true even as our city has become a more recognized and defined tourist town; meetings and conventions are not and will never be as important to Austin's livelihood as they are in Orlando or Las Vegas, or even San Antonio.
So why are we calling a special election over the Convention Center? Those responsible note, accurately, that Austin voters were asked to approve the Convention Center's construction in 1989 and its first expansion in 1998. Thus they think we should have that same right today, as the city sets a course to rebuild the place and complete the mayor's "Downtown Puzzle," as we reported in depth last week.
But That's Not How This Works
At least not in Texas; the words "were asked" are doing a lot of work in that preceding paragraph. For reasons that are, as noted, inside baseball, Austin was required by law to hold those prior elections; they were not voluntary gestures of good government. To implement the current expansion scenario, no such election is required. Instead, a citizen initiative has asked Austinites to go to the polls to weigh in on an issue that almost all of them have never thought about a day in their lives. Why?
"Why not?" say the West Coast transplants reading this now. (I am one of you, though it's been a minute since I moved here.) Unlike those states, with their long lists of propositions on every ballot, Texas is not really built for government-by-referendum. At the state level, the only vehicle is to amend the Texas Constitution itself, which has been done far too many times, but is still not easy and cannot be forced by a petition drive. Those measures – there will be 10 on the ballot this November – have to be approved by supermajorities in the Legislature and signed by the governor before going to voters.
In our local constitution – Austin's charter as a home rule city – this dynamic is reversed. The City Council cannot itself put a thorny measure to the voters to avoid making a decision; if they could, you can be sure they'd have tried. But citizens explicitly have the right to legislate by initiative, or to call referenda on ordinances approved by Council that have not yet gone into effect. This last detail is actually highly significant; with a sufficient majority (8 of 11 votes), Council can declare an emergency that makes the ordinance in question take effect immediately.
The Power of (a Handful of) the People
That's why the Travis GOP's current online petition for Council to "rescind" its decriminalization of homelessness is going nowhere; as a matter of law, it's too late. The Red Team would have to draft a whole new ordinance to replace current code and get 20,000 signatures to put that on the ballot, just as those vexed by the Convention Center, and earlier this year by Austin FC, have done. Since Council did not avail itself of the opportunity to adopt the latter two citizen-drafted ordinances verbatim – its only other option – they'll be up with the constitutionals in November.
The power of the petition is not absolute – an initiative can't conflict with the City Charter or state law, and voters can't order Council to spend money or levy taxes. But it is broad, and it's largely been a matter of custom rather than design that Austin has historically used it rarely. Typically, the citizen-initiative gun gets taken down from over the fireplace when hot topics are already being battled over – Barton Springs, indoor smoking, CodeNEXT. A public vote can then be framed as a way to cool things down and keep debates from consuming all of our civic oxygen.
But the latest pair of measures feels different, even though many of the people involved have been longtime players of the petition game. Or, perhaps, because of that. When you look at the campaign finance filings, you can see that it takes about $120,000 to mount a successful petition drive – with signatures from voters who aren't, let's concede, reading the fine print – in a reasonable time frame to get an initiative on the ballot, and that you can raise that kind of money from just a few people.
That annoys a lot of people who now feel compelled to run campaigns to defeat these measures and preserve what – certainly as it concerns the damn Convention Center – was just fine with almost everyone before. But it's likely why these efforts so often fail; despite the charter's sonorous language that, "The people of the city reserve the power of direct legislation by initiative," they are ironically not grassroots endeavors at all, and it shows once the votes are counted. But they have become easy, and thus routine, and probably are here to stay – unless we have, you guessed it, an election to amend the charter.