Theories abound on courthouse defeat

On the 15th floor of a Congress Avenue office building, about 40 lawyers, political consultants and elected officials clutched drinks in one hand and nervously checked their phones with the other as results streamed in from Travis County’s $287 million bond election for a new civil courthouse to be built seven blocks away.

Some at Tuesday night’s party, hosted by the Austin Bar Association, had spent hundreds of hours, contributed thousands of dollars or put significant political capital on the line for the project. For a while, things were looking good for them: A steady stream of upward-trending results had erased a deficit from early voting.

But then a late surge of “no” votes put its passage out of reach. Campaign workers cried and hugged, Lakeway and Pflugerville were cursed for their presumed opposition to the project, and County Judge Sarah Eckhardt gave a passionate speech about the need for greater voter turnout and appreciation for justice administration.

Theories as to why the bonds failed are myriad and multiplying: State constitutional amendments and suburban races drew out conservative voters; Austin’s affordability crisis has made it impossible to pass large bond projects; the severe weather late last week distracted voters targeted by the pro-courthouse campaign; the price tag was simply too high for one building.

For Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman, who as a city official had nothing to do with the project but led the charge against it, the reason the bonds failed had everything to do with the people at the bar association party.

“The corporate downtown special-interest lobby spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on this,” said Zimmerman, whose campaign with the Travis County Taxpayers Union barely spent any money. “I think a lot of people heard that and said, ‘Well why are hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent if it’s such a good idea?’”

After 15 years of planning, the courthouse bonds lost by about 1,000 votes out of 73,000, a margin of less than 2 percentage points. The defeat follows Austin-area voters’ decision last year to torpedo a massive road-and-rail bond package and, for the first time, a school bond package, prompting questions about whether affordability concerns are becoming a force in local politics.

The notion doesn’t sit well with Eckhardt.

“My gosh, what do you say about that? Does this mean that you just stop building civic infrastructure or do you push ahead?” Eckhardt said.

It was a rhetorical question, because Eckhardt had already made up her mind that the county should move forward with a new version of the courthouse — an enormous political risk given Tuesday’s result. “We need this badly enough for me to take the hit. Sometimes you’ve just got to be brave,” she said.

State law prohibits the county from issuing debt on projects that voters reject for three years after the election. Eckhardt said the county cannot wait that long for a new downtown courthouse and will have to come up a way to build it without borrowing, possibly by partnering with a private developer in a deal that she said will cost taxpayers more in the long run.

Tuesday’s 11.6 percent turnout was typically low for an off-year election with no high-profile items on the ballot. A majority of voters in Austin supported the project, but the suburban and rural parts of the county voted overwhelmingly against it.

Veteran political consultant David Butts, who worked on the bar association-funded campaign for the bonds, said the city-versus-county voting pattern was neither surprising nor the reason the bonds failed.

The real reason, he said, is that the traditionally liberal city voters didn’t vote for the bonds by significant enough margins to overcome the expected deficit in the county. In other words, the problem was a lack of support in Democratic areas, not a Republican show of force.

“Lakeway gave us a high enough … percentage that we should have won, but then when you look at the central city and you see where the vote sort of fell off — Barton Hills, Allandale, Zilker, Rosedale to an extent — these are heavily Democratic, even on today’s housing prices, and there had to be some sort of phenomenon going on. We just didn’t quite get the percentages that we needed,” he said.

Butts said the opposition to the courthouse was galvanized by Zimmerman, who held a news event outside City Hall during early voting calling for the bonds to be defeated so the project could be moved to East Austin. The moment can be seen as an indirect consequence of the City Council’s switch this year from at-large seats to geographic districts, which allowed conservatives like Zimmerman to win in right-leaning areas when they almost certainly couldn’t citywide.

“It’s not that he didn’t have these press conferences before on other issues, but he didn’t have the position,” said Butts, who opposed the switch to geographic districts.

Pete McRae, a lobbyist and public affairs consultant, said the pro-bond campaign was “fighting against the tide” from the start because of the timing of the election, with nothing else on the ballot in many places besides seven state constitutional amendments that provided additional property tax relief and enshrined the right to hunt and fish.

“It was a bad idea to put it on a November odd-year election,” he said. “It was just kind of campaign 101 you don’t put this type of thing on a ballot when those type of voters turn out.”

Bill Oakey, an affordability advocate and blogger who hammered the county on the cost of the courthouse when it was being planned, said it was a “sad day for Travis County” because a new courthouse is needed and the county could have had one — if it had taken more seriously his suggestion to ensure the project was a “national model for cost-effectiveness and efficiency.”

“The affordability concerns of the people are so strong that they are voting reflexively to protect themselves from increases in taxes,” he said.

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