Hating on the state’s most prosperous city

Photo by Austin Price / The Texas Tribune

Austin is such an easy target for those in control of the Texas Capitol.

Everything we do is right here, in their face. Sometimes it’s a little weird — that’s a part of our brand, you know. And a lot of us (actually, most of us), didn’t vote for them.

So they scoff at Austin and promise to rein us in when the Legislature comes back to town in January.

But their Austin-bashing is nothing more than a facile attempt to deflect attention away from the state’s own very serious challenges and the failures in addressing those challenges. It also ignores that Austin has become an economic powerhouse precisely because we’re different.

The U.S. Army gets it. Austin is now home to the Army Futures Command because we’ve created an environment that attracts smart, talented people who are at the forefront of innovation. Those folks appreciate Austin’s wonderful quality of life and an open, welcoming environment that allows them to be who they are.

It’s a recipe that has clearly worked. Over the past decade, the number of jobs in the Austin metro area grew more than 35 percent, the largest percentage job gain of any other large area in the country and almost three times the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That economic growth has created challenges, of course, including traffic congestion and housing affordability. Instead of helping us to address those challenges, the state has repeatedly undermined our community efforts to find solutions.

In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill to overturn an Austin ordinance meant to help low-income renters with federal housing vouchers and the following session prohibited the use of certain building fees to build more affordable housing.

And the Legislature has been downright hostile to transit, which is essential to addressing both our traffic and affordability issues. The state’s newest transportation revenue streams can’t be used for transit.

The latest target is Austin’s paid sick-leave ordinance. This is an issue where I wish we could put aside our partisan politics and our all-or-nothing attitudes and act for the good of Texans. About 40 percent of the Texas workforce lacks paid sick leave. We're putting over 4 million Texans in the position of having to decide whether they take care of a sick kid or earn a paycheck.

It’s not as if those in control of the Capitol have a better idea for those families. In fact, they have an absolutely terrible track record when it comes to taking care of children. Children in foster care, children in special education and medically fragile children have all been willfully neglected by the state, at least until a court, the feds or the media spotlight forces action.

The state’s finger-pointing over rising property taxes is probably the most brazen example of deflection.

As property values go up, the state’s responsibility to pay for public education goes down because local taxpayers are picking up an ever-growing share of the total tab.

That’s the biggest factor in our rising property tax bills, but you wouldn’t know it by the property tax “reform” bills we heard in the last legislative session. Those bills focused exclusively on the property taxes levied by cities, counties and other local governments.

The owner of a $400,000 home in the City of Austin would’ve saved about $45 on her city tax bill under legislation passed by the Senate during the so-called special session last year. Meanwhile, the state is taking about half of the $4,470 she’s paying to Austin ISD under what’s commonly known as Robin Hood.

In recent months, some key folks have finally started acknowledging the state’s prominent role in rising property taxes and there seems to be a consensus that school finance will be the top issue for this coming legislative session.

That’s a good sign that maybe the Legislature will focus on its own challenges rather than picking silly fights with its Capital City.

Kirk Watson

State senator, D-Austin

@KirkPWatson

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