Austin voters: what you need to know about the local propositions

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Voters in the city of Austin will have three different local propositions to decide on this election: City of Austin’s Proposition A, City of Austin’s Proposition B, and Travis County Proposition A.

League of Women Voters of the Austin Area, an all-volunteer and nonpartisan organization, tells KXAN that during their outreach they have come across many people confused by these propositions.

In an effort to help demystify these propositions, here is KXAN’s breakdown of what each of these propositions will do and who supports them:

Travis County Proposition A

In Travis County’s Proposition A, voters will weigh in on whether to allow the county to start collecting a 2% slice of the hotel occupancy tax from hotels within Travis County, but outside the city of Austin for the purposes of expanding and and renovating the Travis County Exposition Center (known as the Expo Center) located near Decker Lake and next to Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park.

When someone stays in a hotel, a percentage of what they pay goes toward what’s called hotel occupancy taxes. The revenues from these taxes are used to draw in more travelers to visit.

Proposition A would not impose a tax on county taxpayers, rather it would raise the tax hotel guests pay, increasing the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) to the state maximum of 17%.

The League of Women Voters explains in their Austin-area voters’ guide that the 2% amount the county is asking for would only apply to hotels within Travis County that are outside the city of Austin.

LWV added that when the City of Austin’s bonds for the Austin Convention Center are paid off, the county may be able to charge and receive Hotel Occupancy Taxes from hotels within the city of Austin, too.

Travis County is interested in accessing the 2% slice of the local hotel tax dollars generated from hotel rooms within Austin, but that might not happen anytime soon. Here’s why:

At a vote in August, Austin’s City Council passed an emergency ordinance to increased the HOT to 17% within the city limits, as well. It’s part of the city’s ongoing efforts to expand the Austin Convention Center.

For Travis County to access the dollars from hotel rooms in the city, the city of Austin will need to pay off its bonds for the Austin Convention Center. Austin Mayor Steve Alder has told KXAN that he believes it is possible that the county will be able to use these dollars once the city pays off its previous bonds. It is unclear presently how long it will take the city of Austin to pay down its convention center bonds, but Travis County has wanted the city to commit to doing so by 2021. If Travis County expands the Convention Center, it’s likely that timetable would disappear.

Supporters of Travis County Proposition A

Rodeo Austin, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion, NAACP Austin President Nelson Linder, former Austin City Council Member Ellen Troxclair, singer-songwriter Kevin Fowler, former MLB player and executive Nolan Ryan, Austin Environmental Democrats, and the Travis County Republican Party have all expressed support for this proposition.

“Rodeo Austin supports Travis County Prop A because it will allow a new use of an existing hotel occupancy tax, paid for by out of town visitors, to renovate the Expo Center – creating jobs and allowing Rodeo Austin to fund more scholarships for kids in our community.”

Rodeo Austin CEO Rob Golding

City of Austin Proposition A

If the City of Austin’s Proposition A is passed, it would require the city of Austin to get approved from nine of the eleven Austin city council members as well as a majority of voters for any sale, lease, transfer, or permitting of City of Austin owned land for any sports or entertainment facilities. This would apply to any existing or future sports or entertainment facilities on city-owned land. Proposition A would also require these impacted sports and entertainment facilities to pay property taxes.

The City of Austin’s Proposition A was brought about initially by opposition to the city’s deal with Austin FC for a Major League Soccer stadium at McKalla Place. It was funded in part by Circuit of The Americas chairman Bobby Epstein, who owns the city’s other soccer team, Austin Bold FC.

However, while group’s Epstein funded initially supported the City of Austin Prop A, that support eroded once it became clear this referendum would only impact new development and not the MLS stadium deal.

The Fair Play Austin PAC ended its support for Prop A on Aug. 19, saying that Prop A “drifted from its original intent” and in its current condition would “do more harm than good.” Then the PAC dissolved.

Supporters of City of Austin Proposition A

The Travis County Republican Party and the community group Friends of McKalla Place still support Proposition A.

“I am supporting Proposition A because I believe that taxpayers should have a right to vote on how public lands are used, and especially when large taxpayer-funded subsidies are part of the package,” explained Francoise Luca of Friends of McKalla Place.

Opponents of City of Austin Proposition A

A political action committee called PACE PAC has been formed to oppose the City of Austin’s Proposition A. PACE said that organizations who oppose the city’s Prop A include: the Long Center, ZACH Theater, Umlauf Sculpture Garden, Music Venue Alliance, Music Makes Austin, Black Fret, Austin Parks Foundation, the ABC Kite Festival, Austin City Limits Music Festival, the North Austin Soccer Alliance, the Austin Food and Wine Festival, SXSW, the Austin Trail of Lights, the Trail Foundation, the YMCA of Austin, and the Travis County Democratic Party.

PACE said that elected officials who oppose the city’s Proposition A include: Austin Mayor Steve Adler and every City Council Member except Leslie Pool, plus state Reps. Sheryl Cole, Gina Hinojosa, and Vikki Goodwin. A number of Austin ISD members are also in opposition.

Local sports organizations have expressed concerns that this proposition would impose taxes on youth sports organizations.

Leaders at the Long Center have said that if the city’s Prop A passes, they would be required to start paying the City of Austin fees of over $2.5 million a year.

City of Austin Proposition B

If approved, the city of Austin’s Proposition B would require the city to get voter approval for any new improvements or expansions of the Austin Convention Center which cost more than $20 million. Proposition B would also limit the City of Austin’s spending for expanding and operating the Austin Convention Center to 34% of the total dollars generated by Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue. The proposition would require that 36% of the HOT revenue dollars be used for supporting and enhancing Austin’s Cultural Tourism Industry.

The City of Austin currently allocates 15% of its total HOT revenue to cultural arts and another 15% to historic preservation — which is the maximum that can be allocated from HOT revenue under the state tax code. If Proposition B were to pass, these allocations for arts and historic preservation would stay the same.

Proposition B opposes the steps Austin City Council has taken toward expanding the city’s convention center. The city of Austin has moved in this direction with the aim of unlocking more Hotel Occupancy Tax dollars which can be used under the state tax code for things like arts and historic preservation funding.

On May 24, Council voted unanimously to approve the Pam District Master Plan, an act that included beginning the process of expanding the Austin Convention Center. On Aug. 8, Council passed an emergency ordinance for a capital improvement plan for the convention center, which enabled the city under state tax code to also increase the local portion of the Hotel Occupancy Tax from 7% to 9%. On Sept. 19, Austin City Council unanimously approved an ordinance that would allocate new Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) dollars toward live music in the city by using money from the increase in the local HOT rate.

Initial estimates based on a study by UT Austin pegged the city’s proposed convention center expansion as costing $1.2 billion, however, the city has told KXAN that it’s too early on in the city’s analysis to speculate about what the estimated cost of expansion would be.

The Political Action Committee Unconventional Austin was successfully able to gather enough petition signatures to bring an ordinance to the ballot in November — Proposition B — which challenges convention center expansion.

Supporters for City of Austin’s Proposition B

(Correction: a previous version of this article stated that Cosmic Coffee supports Unconventional Austin, Cosmic Coffee has since told KXAN that they “have not ever engaged [Unconventional] in any way.”)

Unconventional Austin says their supporters include: Waterloo Records, Austin Independent Business Alliance, NAACP’s Austin Chapter, Save Our Springs Alliance, Planet K, the Bumper Sticker Shop, former Texas State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, attorney and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire, former District 1 Austin City Council Member Ora Houston, attorney and executive director of Save Our Springs Alliance Bill Bunch, Austin Tourism Commissioner John Riedie, Austin Tourism Commissioner Brian Rodgers, Austin NAACP President
Nelson Linder, UTSA Urban Policy Professor Heywood Sanders, musician
Kevin Russell, musician Bill Oliver, musician John Inmon, executive director of the Austin Independent Business Alliance Rebecca Melancon, Travis County Democratic Party precinct chair Steve Speir, the Travis County Republican Party, and Austin Community College’s director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies, Peck Young.

Fred Lewis, an attorney and supporter of Unconventional Austin, said, “Prop B gives voters a vote on the convention center expansion and it puts the convention center on a budget.”

Lewis also helped lead the charge against CodeNext (the city’s previous attempt to overhaul the land development code) and he helped to write the petition that became Austin’s Proposition J, (which ultimately did not pass in November 2018.)

“Prop B limits the amount that can be spent on a convention center and frees up money to be spent on tourism promotion and music and other things that really benefit tourism in Austin and benefit the residents,” Lewis said.

Opponents of the City of Austin’s Proposition B

A political action committee called PHAM PAC was formed to oppose Proposition B in the summer of 2018.

PHAM PAC says their supporters include: ACL Live, Antone’s, Austin LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Austin Music Movement, Central Texas Building Trades Council, the Continental Club, ECHO (Ending Community Homeless Coalition), Empire Control Room & Garage, EQ Austin, Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce, Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce, Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Laborers International Union Local 1095, the Long Center, Mohawk, Music Venue Alliance, Red River Cultural District, Save Palm School Coalition, Saxon Pub, Southwest Laborers’ District Council, Stubb’s, SXSW, UMLAUF Sculpture Garden, and the White Horse.

Jim Wick, an organizer for PHAM PAC who has previously worked as Mayor Steve Alder’s campaign manager, said that Proposition B would, “jeopardize funding for music — $3 million per year for commercial music, $4 million a year homeless services, $3 million for historic preservation, and handcuff the city’s ability to acquire and preserve the Palm School.”

Wick said that hundreds of local organizations are dependent on this funding.

He describes Proposition B as “a risky proposition” with “very dubious legal interpretation” and that PHAM PAC does not believe that the actions Proposition B is calling for would actually be viable under state law. Unconventional Austin does not agree with Wick’s assertions.

“I think the biggest takeaway here is [Proposition B] will limit our ability to attract and host conventions which are a tremendous boon to Austin’s tourism economy,” Wick said, expressing worry that if funding is diverted away from the convention center that the city will not be able to maintain the Austin Convention Center to the standards that are necessary to keep drawing in more business.

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