New spending cap bill could cut into big Austin city projects

Rendering of an expanded Austin Convention Center
Rendering of an expanded Austin Convention Center

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas lawmakers want to limit how much cities and counties can spend while in Austin the mayor says it could hamper the city’s efforts to house the homeless, expand the convention center and finish other large projects.

State representatives and senators are beginning to chug through the 20 items Gov. Greg Abbott called them back to work on in a 30-day special session. One of those items is a cap on local spending.

When tax bills hit, many might have one or two programs they’d rather not pay for. For James Quintero, at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, it’s the $9,000 for an artist in residence at the city watershed department.

“Especially here in Austin, we have a problem with too many wants and not focusing enough on our needs,” said Quintero. He supports Senate Bill 18, by Senator Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, which caps how much city councils or county commissioners can spend.

“One of Gov. Abbott’s special session priorities is to enact common sense local spending reforms like those already in place for state government spending. The details are a work in progress and I will continue to work with my legislative colleagues toward that goal,” Sen. Estes wrote KXAN.

In the days ahead, possibly Friday but most likely Monday, Texas senators will discuss exempting law enforcement budgets and setting the cap at a county by county level instead of a single statewide cap. The bill would exempt bond elections and allow a city or county vote to override the cap, something local leaders predict will hardly ever happen.

Quintero says Gov. Abbott’s push has propelled this idea farther than it has ever been before in Texas and nationwide.

“To be able to demonstrate on a national stage what small, responsible government looks like and how that can absolutely ignite an economy,” said Quintero.

A closer look at Austin over the past decade shows the budget growth fluctuates from 0 to 15 percent. Senate Bill 18 would cap at population and inflation growth, which historically has meant around four percent a year

Year budget passed                        Size of Budget                   Percentage increase from year to year

2006                                                       $2.3 billion

2007                                                       $2.4 billion                           4.3%

2008                                                       $2.63 billion                        9.6%

2009                                                       $2.64 billion                        0.4%

2010                                                       $2.69 billion                        1.9%

2011                                                       $2.68 billion                        -0.4%

2012                                                       $3.1 billion                           15.7%

2013                                                       $3.3 billion                           6.5%

2014                                                       $3.5 billion                           6.1%

2015                                                       $3.5 billion                           0%

2016                                                       $3.7 billion                           5.7%

“It certainly seems to me that a lot of state leadership wishes they were Mayor,” said Steve Adler, mayor of Austin.

As part of his “downtown puzzle” he wants to dedicate future property taxes — through tax increment finance zones — to projects like expanding the convention center, additional housing for homeless Texans, and an ambitious proposal to revamp Waller Creek. This cap could get in the way.

“It would have a huge impact on the cities ability [to get] the special projects and special things that the community wants and expects,” said Mayor Adler.

He points the finger back at lawmakers, who drive up Austin property taxes by not paying more for public schools through our “Robin Hood” system of school finance.

The city of Austin gets most of its general fund money from your property taxes, that’s money the city council and mayor control. For this budget year more than 40 percent came from property taxes. Nearly 70 percent goes to public safety, like having officers on the streets.

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