The city's proposal to expand the Austin Convention Center could be on the ballot in November. A group opposing the City Council's decision to build out the center says it submitted a 30,000-signature petition calling for a referendum that would force a public vote as the city moves ahead with the plan.
A political action committee called Unconventional Austin argues the city-levied hotel occupancy tax revenue that largely pays for the convention center could be better spent toward the city as a whole. The PAC's petition also calls for a drastic reduction in the revenue that currently goes toward the center – cutting it down to 35%.
The city clerk's office must validate the signatures before it's put on a ballot.
"The people of Austin deserve a vote on an expansion of the Convention Center, we are talking about well over $1 billion," Rebecca Melancon of the Austin Independent Business Alliance said in a statement. "We voted on the original convention center, we voted on the first expansion, and we should vote on future expansions."
The Austin City Council approved the estimated $1.2 billion expansion unanimously in May, along with a plan to acquire the historic Palm School from Travis County in the hopes of doubling the convention center's size.
The city is ramping up negotiations on a deal with the county to acquire that land on the condition that it send some of the hotel tax to county coffers and preserve the historically Mexican-American school.
But Unconventional Austin's petition argues the benefit from an expanded convention center wouldn't directly impact the city writ large – that the center's "corporate meetings, conventions and events account for less than four percent of Austin's overnight visitors" and that the center itself takes in more than 70% of the hotel occupancy tax revenue.
Those numbers have been refuted by District 7 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan.
In a statement, Austin Mayor Steve Adler questioned who was behind the petition and accused the PAC of misleading the public. He pointed out that the vote was unanimous and the majority of public testimony was in favor of expanding the convention center. “We’ve had four studies that have looked at this issue and the council has discussed it for years,” he said. “All agree that we can get hundreds of millions of dollars of community benefits for homeless services, our music and arts industries, and preserving our important historic sites like the Palm School. All paid for by tourists, not local property or sales taxes.”
Jim Wick, a former staffer for the mayor who supports the expansion, told KUT that state law requires the city to expand the convention center if it wants to see more tax revenue from hotel stays in Austin.
"The uses of this money are very restrictive. In fact, the statute says it has to be spent to benefit the hotel and convention industry," he said. "I think that's pretty straightforward, and we have an opportunity here to increase the tax in order to expand the convention center."
Wick filed paperwork Friday to establish his own PAC called PHAM PAC, a moniker that uses an acronym to emphasize, as he sees it, the benefit the expansion could have for the Palm School, homelessness services and arts and music preservation.
If the petition ordinance is put on the ballot and passed by voters, it would require that any investment above $20 million for construction, expansion or renovation of the convention center put to a public vote.
Read the petition language below.