"I think the bright spots weren't so much affirmative bright spots as that we avoided some bad things," Austin Mayor Steve Adler says of the 2019 Texas legislative session, which wrapped up Monday.
Adler says he had been concerned throughout the session that setting a too-low cap on property tax increases would hurt Texas cities and their budgets. Senate Bill 2, which was sent to the governor, sets that cap on property tax growth at 3.5% before voters have to give their approval. Adler says that limit will pinch cities.
"I remain concerned about a 3.5% cap," he says. "Since inflation and wage escalations and costs of things like health insurance coverage go up at a rate greater than that, we're in a position now where – depending on what our sales tax revenue is – we could end up having to cut budgets indefinitely."
The Legislature also passed a bill that prohibits cities from partnering with agencies that provide abortion services – even if the contract is for services not related to abortion. Adler says the Planned Parenthood facility on 7th Street in East Austin is under a long-term contract with the city and therefore will not be subject to the new law. But he remains worried about its impact.
"We have clinics in the city that are performing health care services for women that have nothing to do with abortions, and there are a lot of women in our community that are getting services at these clinics," he says. "The city and county and other governmental entities are no longer going to be able to support those much-needed health clinics in our city."
Adler maintains, though, that he did see some good outcomes for cities as a result of the legislative session. Listen to his interview with KUT for more on what he says are positive trends:
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler: I remain concerned about a 3.5% cap since inflation and wage escalations and costs of things like health insurance coverage go up at a rate greater than that, which means we're in a position now where - depending on what our sales tax revenue is - we could end up having to cut budgets indefinitely.
We can't continue our existing budget. That's not adding any new programs - just our existing budget the way that it is. If we were to try to keep that in place, we're going to be about $40-45 million upside down in three years. So we're going to begin this year with this budget having to leave things out that folks here in Austin want us to have included in a budget. But now we can't.
KUT: Would you go to voters, though, to ask to go above the cap and what do you think voters might do?
Adler: I think that voters in this community would vote to approve us going above the cap to keep those programs. But at the same time, you don't want to go to voters every year to get increases to cover health insurance cost increases. You exhaust voters that way, and when you do go to voters in a citywide election you want it to be about something that's really big and special.
I anticipate going to the voters not this November but the following November for us to bring about a mass transit - rapid transit system - public transit system for the entire city. That's the kind of thing we should be going to voters for - the big affordable housing bond. That's what we should be going to voters for.
KUT: Are there any exceptions - any things like public safety that might be of particular concern to citizens that would not be impacted?
Adler: Virtually none. They opted to pass something that really didn't have any real exceptions - certainly not something that would matter to us here in Austin, which I think was really unfortunate. You know we had plans to bring in a lot more officers and open up five new fire stations; that was going to be a significant increase in personnel and first responders. And I just don't know how we keep that kind of increase happening at the schedule where we were planning on doing it given these cuts and given these caps.
KUT: I want to ask a couple of other things directed at cities. One of them - a bill that would ban state and local governments from partnering with agencies that perform abortions, even if that state government or local government is contracting for non-abortion related services.
So, for example, cities could not partner with Planned Parenthood on women's health services even if those services aren't abortion-related. Planned Parenthood leases space in East Austin for a dollar a year. What do you expect this new legislation will do to that arrangement and to health care services for women in Austin?
Adler: We have clinics in the city that are performing health care services for women that have nothing to do with abortions, and there are a lot of women in our community that are getting services at these clinics. And the city and the county and other governmental entities are no longer going to be able to support those much- needed health clinics in our city.
We had entered into a long-term lease with Planned Parenthood. This bill does not pertain to transactions that have occurred in the past, so it's not going to impact the clinic that we have at 7th Street in our city where Planned Parenthood is providing much-needed health services, and no abortions by the way, in that clinic. So that clinic will be able to continue to operate.
KUT: Overall, how would you say cities fared in this legislative session?
Adler: I think the bright spots weren't so much affirmative rights bright spots as that we avoided some bad things. The state really went after cities to try to preempt local control. Included in that is sick leave, which the Legislature started to, but was not successful in, preempting.
Policies we have in this city like our fair chance or second chance ordinances that make it a little bit easier for people who have a criminal history - help them get jobs. There was an attempt to preempt even that. It also fell short.
Fortunately, one of the bright spots was that cities became more alive than they've ever been fighting the property cap issue. This was me working with mayors all over the state, including Republican mayors in Amarillo and Lubbock. One of the things that happened good this session was that cities became closer and more unified in their approach.
KUT: What does it tell you that this legislation that you mentioned didn't pass?
Adler: I think the last election that we just had demonstrated to many elected officials in many different ways that they weren't gonna get credit for coming into Austin for the Legislature and beating up on the City of Austin. Their constituents back home want them to do good work for them - [are] concerned about issues that they're dealing with. And I think that a lot of the legislators took that to heart and began to focus really a little bit more on the business of the state. My hope is that that trend continues.