Mayor Steve Adler says that his trouncing of Laura Morrison means voters want a bigger convention center. Elizabeth Findell reports:
“I do see the margin in the mayor’s race as an affirmation of what we’ve been doing in this city,” he said. “The community has endorsed the position that we’ve taken leading other cities around the state and around the country. The conversations that we have had in respect to the convention center and using that as a tool to generate the revenue stream to actually do something about homelessness.”
My unscientific estimate for the percentage of voters who were thinking about the convention center when they cast their ballots last week is between 0.01% and 0.02%. Basically, whatever percentage of people have leadership positions in the convention or lodging industry.
Libertarian civil liberties dude Arif Panju went further:
Well, as the hotel lobby stresses time and time again, these aren’t normal tax dollars we’re talking about. This is the hotel occupancy tax (HOT), levied on hotel guests. Hotels have long argued that they have lobbied for and submitted to the tax with the understanding that the revenue would be used only for things that explicitly benefit the tourism and lodging industry, most notably a convention center that guarantees hotels a steady stream of business from visitors attending conferences and trade shows.
Last year, the mayor proposed expanding the convention center as part of an elaborate scheme to solve the “downtown puzzle.” Essentially, it was a proposed political deal with the hotel lobby. If Council voted to increase the HOT tax and use the new revenue to expand the convention center, the hotels would agree to levy an additional tax on themselves through a Tourism Public Improvement District (TPID). The money raised from the TPID would fund homelessness services, to the tune of $4 million a year immediately and $8 million a year by 2021, according to an estimate touted by the mayor.
The mayor was unable to garner support on Council for that plan last year. Council members, led by the unlikely duo of Kathie Tovo and Ellen Troxclair, not only rejected moving forward on a convention expansion but successfully pushed to shift a big chunk of HOT revenue from the Convention and Visitors Bureau (now called Visit Austin) to fund historic preservation projects.
HOT revenue, you see, cannot be spent on just anything. State law says it has to be spent on stuff that can reasonably be described as stimulating the tourism industry, including historic preservation or other cultural amenities that may attract tourists. Some on Council have pushed for as broad an interpretation of that as possible so that the city can use HOT to cover programs that would otherwise suck up precious property tax revenue, such as parks and swimming pools. The hotel lobby isn’t happy about that. They want as much of the money focused on the convention center and the CVB.
I don’t think it’s clear what most people think about an expanded convention center, although it certainly helps that the mayor is framing it as a way to fund progressive priorities rather than simply arguing that it will be economically beneficial. Unlike land use, there wasn’t a referendum on the ballot to help us judge how people are thinking about the issue. It was one of many issues discussed in a mayoral campaign that hardly anybody paid attention to.
Just as important, I also don’t think it’s clear that the elections (we still got two runoffs to deal with) will change the dynamic on the Council dais on this issue.