It would be hard to find a better example of left-wing naiveité in municipal affairs than what transpired here in November. Voters in the Lone Star State’s progressive bastion, overwhelmingly approved a $925 million bond package but rejected a simple ballot initiative for an independent audit of city spending.
The defeat of the audit wouldn’t be so galling if the new bonds didn’t so obviously demonstrate the need for an independent review of Austin’s books. Spending in the Texas capital is more like what one would expect in some profligate California city. With this new bond package, Austin has been reduced to using debt to fund parks, public safety and sidewalk repair—instead of paying for them out of its $4.1 billion annual budget.
There’s no good excuse. Austin is booming, and has been for a while. It’s a hub for tech firms and has a fast-growing tax base. The city should be able to pay for everything it needs without saddling future residents with nearly $1 billion in new debt (which comes on the heels of a $720 million transportation bond passed in 2016).
But Austin, a more or less typical progressive city of 950,000, spends too much of its steadily growing budget on dubious social programs and utopian schemes, financed by a steadily growing tax burden. Last year the city introduced a new “artist in residence” program, which embeds an artist in various city departments—not to produce works of art for the public, or to produce anything at all, but to be a creative presence in City Hall and “think outside the box,” as one city official told a local news outlet.
Another program caused a stir two years ago when, in a strange and short-lived effort to combat the spread of HIV, employees of the Health and Human Services Department hung plastic bags full of condoms and lubricant from trees in a public park known for outdoor assignations. Under media scrutiny, city officials shut down the program and denied having known about it.
Programs like these aren’t expensive, but they are legion—and they add up. From a $1,500 “solar ready” requirement on all new homes and commercial buildings, to a tree-preservation ordinance that can easily cost homeowners thousands of dollars, to exorbitantly high development fees that get passed on to consumers, living in Austin is death by a thousand cuts.
Yet these myriad programs and fees exemplify the governing ethos of Austin’s political leadership. Anyone familiar with local politics in the Democrat-run capital of Texas—what former Gov. Rick Perry once called “the blueberry in the tomato soup”—knows that the priority of the city’s ultraprogressive political establishment is to serve the interests of the wealthy, ultraprogressive white people who fund and elect Austin’s insular political class.
That’s why the city expelled ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft two years ago on the outlandish pretext that the apps wouldn’t be safe unless every driver went through a fingerprint background check. The real reason was that the city’s elites didn’t like Uber and Lyft imposing their corporate culture on Austin and wanted to make an example out of them. When Uber and Lyft predictably left town, some 10,000 drivers, mostly working-class residents and young people, were suddenly out of a job.
Putting progressive ideals and special interests ahead of working people is a familiar pattern in Austin. In February the city passed a San Francisco-like ordinance to force employers to offer a week of paid sick leave annually—with an exemption, of course, for union shops. The ordinance amounted to a city-mandated wage raise that would have surely killed jobs citywide if a state appeals court hadn’t struck down the measure in November.
As for the independent audit thwarted in the November election, Austin progressives could hardly admit they opposed accountability for their spending schemes, so they campaigned against the audit initiative as a right-wing plot funded by the Koch brothers and “dark money.” Not everyone went along. City Councilwoman Ora Houston, who represents a predominantly African-American part of the city with high poverty and unemployment, adamantly supported the audit. But the Koch brothers canard spooked enough progressive voters to defeat the measure.
Austin’s progressive elites got what they wanted this time, but the city might not be able to afford their profligacy in the long run. Perhaps more than any other city in the country, Austin is built on its reputation for being cool. It doesn’t have Houston’s oil-and-gas industry or Dallas’s corporate headquarters and retail. The tech sector is hot, but mostly because tech workers want to live in Austin and enjoy its great music festivals, taco trucks and bars. Artists and young people can still afford to live here, and as filmmaker and Austin native Robert Rodriguez once said, “People don’t live in Austin to work, they work to live there.”
But as living here gets more expensive, and as the city’s elite dig in to protect their left-wing haven from disruption and change, Austin risks becoming the San Francisco of the South—an expensive playground for wealthy progressives.
Mr. Davidson is a senior correspondent for the Federalist.