The strange saga of the efficiency audit continues.
Last week, Council reluctantly voted to put the measure on the ballot. The language that it approved to describe the initiative is not what the initaitive supporters wanted, but it was nowhere near as biased as the language that was originally floated, which basically told voters that if they voted in favor of it, they should expect a tax hike or service cuts. Here’s what was approved:
“Without using the existing internal City Auditor or existing independent external auditor, shall the City Code be amended to require an efficiency study of the City’s operational and fiscal performance performed by a third-party audit consultant, at an estimated cost of $1 million-$5 million?”
Nevertheless, supporters of the audit say they’re going to sue to get the language changed. They think it’s unfair to mention the potential cost or to mention the “existing internal City Auditor,” because they argue that makes it sound like what they’re proposing is redundant.
As I’ve said before, I can see nothing inherently wrong with hiring a third-party consultant to do a comprehensive assessment of of city programs. It makes sense to do that every once in a while. But I’m also far from convinced that such an audit will yield significant savings.
What’s interesting are the political dynamics surrounding the initiative. The effort was entirely financed by some dark money conservative group but was immediately embraced by the same contingent of Old Austin “watchdog” liberals who led the anti-CodeNEXT effort, including Mr. Campaign Finance Reform himself, Fred Lewis.
Indeed, the guy running the operation, former Troxclair aide Michael Searle, tried to milk the support of Lewis, Bill Bunch and NAACP President Nelson Linder for all that it was worth. In all of the press releases in support of the policy, the only conservative quoted was Searle himself. He made sure to spotlight the local libs as much as possible.
Sometimes a policy that is born to a Republican can be adopted and raised by Democrats. Have you heard of Obamacare? But in the case of the efficiency audit, the original sin is probably a bit too fresh. No number of liberal hands could cleanse the initiative of its right-wing odor.
So while Ora Houston and Alison Alter were sold on the idea and Leslie Pool was briefly sold on the idea, many other Council members most definitely did not want to be accomplices in some Koch scheme.
It was very entertaining to see veteran Democratic strategist David Butts show up at Council and promise to defeat the measure. It was particularly entertaining because he was speaking right before Bill Bunch, who was then forced to speak in support of a measure that Butts had described as a sinister effort by people who “don’t like Austin.”
Butts, speaking like a pure-blood campaigner, said that the effort was intended to embarrass Austin. His theory was that the consultant would present a bunch of unpalatable cuts that Council would refuse, such as gutting employee pensions or privatizing Austin Energy. Then conservatives would either use it as a campaign issue or get the legislature to force such policies on the city.
Maybe. But City Council doesn’t usually follow the advice provided by consultants anyway. And most voters don’t pay attention.
As for the legislature, that is definitely a concern. But whatever schemes Greg Abbott et al have cooked up to screw over city budgets, they don’t need a year-long efficiency audit of the city of Austin to do it.