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Wear: On further review, council indeed divided about ‘go big’ bonds

Turns out Dewey really did defeat Truman.

Metaphorically and locally speaking, and eventually. I have no evidence that the 1948 presidential election was rigged, Mr. Trump.

Allow me to explain.

On Aug. 11, the night the Austin City Council cast a preliminary vote putting Mayor Steve Adler’s $720 million transportation plan on the November ballot, I chose, because of the Statesman’s early print deadlines, to write a story for the reconstituted-wood edition that focused on the people giving public comment who earlier in the council meeting voiced various objections to the bond package.

The headline for that early-to-bed article, splashed across the top of the Statesman’s front page as its landed on sidewalks the next morning: “Adler bond plan still faces dissent.”

Unfortunately for those of us in the big white barn at 305 S. Congress Avenue, after I had written that story and editors sent an improved version to our presses, Adler deftly managed to coax the council into an 11-0 (semi-final) vote for the bond package. In other words, no dissenters, at least on the dais. I duly reported this as well, right after it happened, but it ran only online (and then in Saturday’s print edition).

The mayor had a bit of fun with this glitch Aug. 12. By 9 a.m., he had tweeted a smiling picture of himself holding the newspaper with the out-of-date headline about dissent. Below that, he tacked on the famous photo of President Harry Truman holding up the famous “Dewey defeats Truman” snafu by the Chicago Daily Tribune.

All I could do was grin and bear it. When you’re wrong, you’re wrong.

Except that sometimes time passes and you no longer are. Sometimes it’s only a week later.

To what must be the mayor’s great chagrin and political pain, the center did not hold on the bond vote. The measure passed on a final vote Thursday, but with only seven votes on the 11-member council. After voicing their objections, council members representing 40 percent of the city either voted “no” (Ora Houston) or, through abstentions, declined to vote “yes” (Delia Garza, Ellen Troxclair and Don Zimmerman).

Houston, who represents Northeast Austin’s District 1, didn’t like how the whole thing came together behind closed doors so quickly over the first half of the year, with the $482 million “smart corridors” centerpiece based on studies commissioned and completed under the auspices of the former council. Yes, as the mayor had said, there was ample public input into those studies. But in Houston’s view, those in-putters were the spawn of the bad old days of a council that was beholden to white, central city urbanites who dominated elections, and tended to cater to that clique’s policy desires.

Zimmerman and Troxclair, meanwhile, had wanted a definitive statement in the ballot language of the property tax cost of voting yes, and thought they had it (over the objections of the city attorney’s office) on Aug. 11. When the city attorney won that argument a week later, leaving only a vague allusion on the ballot to “the levy of a tax sufficient to pay for the bonds and notes,” the council’s two fiscal right fielders bailed on Adler. However, the plan includes a good chunk for highways, streets and sidewalks in Zimmerman’s Northwest Austin District 6 and Troxclair’s Southwest Austin District 8, so they held off on a “no.”

Garza didn’t like that the plan had no direct transit spending (responding to a corps of rail activists) and that it left the city only $250 million of bond “capacity” for another election in 2018 on other city needs such as flood control, affordable housing, public safety, parks and libraries. And of the major projects in the plan, her Southeast Austin District 2 got only a promise of work somewhere on William Cannon Drive, some time. She abstained as well.

So, in the final tally, Adler’s bond plan did indeed face dissent.

Having a split council vote on bond packages is not how these things go historically, and it doesn’t bode well for passage by voters. The mayor had worked to bring everyone under the tent, throwing in that William Cannon corridor to touch Garza’s district and that of District 5’s Ann Kitchen, who had been against the plan in June. There’s that $101 million for the suburban roads, which seemed like it might nab Troxclair and Zimmerman. Adler moved some urban trail money into sidewalks when Houston was upset that half of the $55 million first allotted to sidewalks had been divvied up evenly among the council districts for “safe route to schools” spending.

But they left the tent anyway.

Zimmerman and Garza are running for election this fall even as the bond campaign heats up, and it’s a good bet they won’t be proselytizing for it on the hustings. Houston said Thursday she’ll actively campaign for the bond’s defeat. The disappointed rail advocates, hoping to maintain city’s borrowing room for a possible rail election in 2018, will be doing what they can to get people to vote no.

It may not matter, though. Telling people you’re going to “go big” on transportation spending in traffic-congested Austin, as the mayor has, and that it will cost them something like $5 a month (on an average Austin home of about $250,000 value), could find a receptive audience. There will be cash for the campaign through an existing political action committee called Move Austin Forward with monied support from the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Council of Austin.

And while there will be some organized opposition (former Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy and fiscal conservative Jim Skaggs seem likely to organize it and provide some financial backing), it won’t have the heft of anti-rail efforts by those same people in years past. As one City Hall person put it, the support and the opposition for the plan are both shallow, and people will go to the polls thinking mostly about Clinton and Trump.

But all Truman — eh, Adler — needs from the public is 50 percent plus one vote. That’s the front page the mayor really wants to hold up.

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