Wall Street Journal column misses the mark

The Wall Street Journal editorial page (not to be confused with the rest of the decent but declining Wall Street Journal) is a cherished safe space for conservatives in cities across the country to vent about their oppression by liberals.

Thus comes a column by John Daniel Davidson, an Austin-based writer for the Federalist, about the recent defeat of Proposition K, which would have subjected the city to a comprehensive “efficiency audit” by an outside consultant.

It would be hard to find a better example of left-wing naiveité in municipal affairs than what transpired here in November. Voters in the Lone Star State’s progressive bastion, overwhelmingly approved a $925 million bond package but rejected a simple ballot initiative for an independent audit of city spending.

The defeat of the audit wouldn’t be so galling if the new bonds didn’t so obviously demonstrate the need for an independent review of Austin’s books. Spending in the Texas capital is more like what one would expect in some profligate California city. With this new bond package, Austin has been reduced to using debt to fund parks, public safety and sidewalk repair—instead of paying for them out of its $4.1 billion annual budget.

There’s no good excuse. Austin is booming, and has been for a while. It’s a hub for tech firms and has a fast-growing tax base. The city should be able to pay for everything it needs without saddling future residents with nearly $1 billion in new debt (which comes on the heels of a $720 million transportation bond passed in 2016).

A few things:

We don’t really have a $4.1 billion budget. I mean, we do, but most of it is taken up by Austin Energy, the municipal utility. That money, which comes not from taxes but from electricity rates, can’t be used for parks, public safety, and sidewalks. Of course, the fact that we have a publicly-owned utility that is aggressively pursuing renewable energy, helping poor people weatherize their homes and delivering lower-than-average residential rates infuriates plenty of Republicans at the Capitol. Indeed, some theorized that the efficiency audit was just a ruse to justify the privatization of AE.  Anywaythe general fund budget is only about $1 billion.

Bonds are typically how you pay for capital costs. The article appears aimed at misleading readers into believing that we’re issuing bonds to support day-to-day operating costs for police, fire and parks. That’s NOT true. The bonds included funds to build new fire stations. Or acquire new parkland. Or build bridges. Does Davidson really expect that we’d be able to do those things through our operating budget? I can’t imagine he’s endorsing the “if you don’t build it, they won’t come” mantra that has guided a certain segment of Austin’s ruling class for decades. But whether or not that’s his intention, that’s what the policy outcome would be.

Davidson then goes on to list a couple of the wackiest city initiatives he can find –– the health department hanging bags of condoms from park trees, the resident artist program –– to demonstrate that city government is run by hippies on a continuous acid trip. He does mention high development fees, which many-a-liberal would agree is a problem.

Yet these myriad programs and fees exemplify the governing ethos of Austin’s political leadership. Anyone familiar with local politics in the Democrat-run capital of Texas—what former Gov. Rick Perry once called “the blueberry in the tomato soup”—knows that the priority of the city’s ultraprogressive political establishment is to serve the interests of the wealthy, ultraprogressive white people who fund and elect Austin’s insular political class.

There’s a grain of truth here but it’s more wrong than right. First off, would anybody really argue that Mayor Steve Adler or his predecessor, Lee Leffingwell, are “ultraprogressives”? Prior to the 10-1 Council, city politics was indeed largely shaped by a small group of affluent white homeowners, but I would argue that it was the increased diversity of elected officials and the electorate that has pushed city politics to the left in recent years, since we moved to a district-based Council. It is the three Latino Council members from majority-Latino districts who are pushing to liberalize the land development code, invest in affordable housing, increase the minimum wage and mandate paid sick leave. All of these things have been greeted with either hostility or reluctance from the white liberal establishment.

Speaking of paid sick leave…

Putting progressive ideals and special interests ahead of working people is a familiar pattern in Austin. In February the city passed a San Francisco-like ordinance to force employers to offer a week of paid sick leave annually—with an exemption, of course, for union shops. The ordinance amounted to a city-mandated wage raise that would have surely killed jobs citywide if a state appeals court hadn’t struck down the measure in November.

Time out. Paid sick leave is something designed to “serve the interests of the wealthy, ultraprogressive white people”? I’m sure Davidson would argue that the policy only benefits wealthy liberals’ egos, but I can assure you that that is not the constituency that Greg Casar, Workers Defense Project or the largely low-income, nonwhite crowd that came to testify in support of the policy had in mind.

Notably absent from Davidson’s screed against government regulation was any mention of zoning, arguably the most significant regulatory mechanism at the city’s disposal. Maybe that’s because when they’re not talking about being besieged by government regulations, Austin Republicans are advocating for the city to protect their neighborhoods from apartment buildings and businesses.

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