Mayor Kirk Watson is looking to push forward what he calls “a bad bill” that would have significant implications for Project Connect.
Rep. Ellen Troxclair’s House Bill 3899 would not allow local government corporations, like the Austin Transit Partnership, to issue bonds paid for using property taxes – a primary funding mechanism for the light rail project. As Watson noted in his news release, the bill would effectively require another vote on Project Connect (in November). The mayor added that he was able to negotiate the bill’s language, but the updated version had yet to be posted as of Friday at 1pm.
“And it’s a terrible precedent for the Legislature to muck with a voter-approved infrastructure investment that is allowed under state law almost three years after an election that also fully complied with state law,” Watson’s release read. “But if we’re going to protect light rail for the long run, we need to bring this question back home to the people of Austin and let the people vote – again. Sometimes, killing a bad bill (assuming the bill can be killed) isn’t necessarily the best outcome.”
Near the end of the three-hour Pensions, Investments & Financial Services committee hearing on the bill earlier this month, Rep. Salman Bhojani, D-Euless, questioned the precedent that might be set if the state were to pass a law retroactively rendering a local election moot. Troxclair did not seem to have any qualms about the implications. “Great question, and the answer doesn’t matter,” she said. “There is no other entity that is using this kind of tax financing so it only applies to local government corporations who are receiving tax revenue from a city.”
Proponents of the bill included Gerald Dougherty, Bill Aleshire, and Gonzalo Barrientos. They also brought in Dirty Martin’s owner Mark Nemir. In a not-so-subtle move, Speaker Dade Phelan ordered lunch for committee members from the restaurant that stands to be demolished in its current form by the light-rail project.
While he did not give testimony that day, Watson’s spirit also seemed to hover over the room, as Rep. John Bryant, D-Dallas, invoked his friend’s name to voice concern over the bill. “I’m concerned that the same people that were opposed to mass transit in the beginning remained opposed to it over the years and offer many of the criticisms that you’re echoing today with regard to financing and so forth,” Bryant said to Troxclair. However, Watson’s efforts to block the bill clearly changed in recent weeks.
The divided testimony also heavily featured ATP Executive Director Greg Cannally, who consistently said the 2020 election of Project Connect was conducted in accordance with state law at the time. Now, the bill awaits votes by the committee, the House, and the Senate.
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