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McCracken and Leffingwell tussle over the budget

Wednesday, March 11, 2009 by Steven Pickering

Council Members Brewster McCracken and Lee Leffingwell squared off over the city’s budget on Tuesday during a mayoral candidate’s forum sponsored by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (http://www.acslaw.org/about/mission ), a group for lawyers interested in promoting democracy and access to justice. Candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn did not attend. McCracken and Leffingwell found common ground on issues relating to civil liberties and the criteria for citizen-initiated amendments to the City Charter, but disagreed on the next steps to trim the city’s budget.

 

During the one heated exchange in front of a small crowd gathered at Sullivan’s Steakhouse in the Warehouse District, McCracken accused Leffingwell of putting the desires of the city’s unions before the needs of the children of Austin. When the City Manager was working on ways to cut expenses, McCracken said, “one option presented was that the Fire Department was going to provide net zero budget cuts, and we were going to instead have our public libraries closed five nights a week. Now, where do you think kids go to have a safe place to do their homework at nights in a lot of the city? They come to our local libraries.”

 

McCracken accused Leffingwell of flip-flopping on budget cuts. “What I have said…and Lee vociferously disagreed with me on this, then he adopted my exact statement in Saturday’s newspaper…we need to be sharing equally in the sacrifice when it comes to pay increases. That’s fundamental, ” he said.

 

The unions for police officers and EMS workers, McCracken said, should consider foregoing raises for their members that had been guaranteed in their contracts. “I greatly appreciate the service of our police officers, firefighters, and EMS employees and respect the contracts their unions have signed,” he said. “But if we’re facing… keeping libraries open for children at night or giving a pay increase to our police and EMS unions. I think leadership calls on us to say, even to our powerful police and EMS and fire associations, we need to share completely when it comes to pay increases.”

 

Leffingwell took exception to McCracken’s characterization of his remarks on the budget. “No one has called for pay cuts for city employees, not the City Manager, not anybody on staff, not anybody on City Council — except for Brewster,” he said. “And what I said was, given that hypothetical, if there were pay cuts or pay freezes they should apply across the board. But, I said, there’s a problem there, because our contract employees, by definition, have a contract. You have to respect their right, their legal contract.”

 

The back-and-forth continued when both candidates were asked how the city could attract new jobs during the economic downturn. McCracken argued that incentives would be important for luring companies in the growing high-tech fields of clean energy and digital media, and that a previous suggestion from Leffingwell to re-negotiate the city’s existing deals on tax-breaks would hurt the city’s reputation and make it more difficult to bring in new firms. “Lee said that first, we cut everybody (city employees making) over $100,000 except for public safety, which reinforces their powerful position. He said second, we go out and we call and tell the employers who are receiving incentive agreements with the city that they need to take the cut…only then could we then go to our public safety unions and ask them to share the sacrifice on pay increases,” McCracken said. “That’s’ a fundamental disagreement. Because I don’t think that causing people to lose jobs and losing our ability to attract new jobs in film, digital media and clean energy…I don’t think that that’s a higher priority than asking our public safety associations to share the sacrifices.”

 

But Leffingwell shot back that McCracken was twisting his words. “Brewster, I want to say that is an absolute falsehood. I never said that,” he replied. “I talked about ‘if we have to do pay cuts, we should begin at the top’ (see In Fact Daily, Feb. 24, 2009 ). I never said anything about exempting any employees. The important point is to say that I had pointed to exempt public safety employees from that $100,000 group is just not true, it’s out of thin air.”

 

Following the forum, Leffingwell further clarified some of his remarks to In Fact Daily regarding his previous comments on the budget. As for which employees, if any, should be asked to take salary cuts, “I never got into that in my statement. It’s on ‘The Hustle” in the Austin Chronicle,” he said. “My position is that before we freeze or cut pay for a group of employees, that we attempt to make it uniform across the board, contract and non-contract.” The idea of a 10 percent salary cut for Council Members and city employees at the level of department head and above “was just off the top of my head, it was like a ‘for instance’,” he said. “The second part was that we go to our business partners as well and we try to renegotiate those contracts.”

 

Leffingwell said the idea to cut salaries of the highest-paid employees “was a hypothetical . . . it was obviously thrown out for political purposes because nobody else had even talked about it.”

 

He said he was simply trying to make a point that it’s impossible to know what cuts will have to be made in the future. “What I should have said was, ‘sure, we might get to the point where the City Council, senior executives, and lower employees alike would have to offer to open up their veins and sell their blood to balance the budget,’” he said. “It’s another hypothetical …the lesson learned is that it’s ridiculous to respond to a hypothetical. There’s no future in it.”

 

On other issues, the two candidates found little room for disagreement. Both were receptive to the idea of increasing the number of signatures required to trigger a charter amendment election as proposed by Senate Bill 690. “In general, I do not believe that the California-style government of initiative and referendum has served us well,” McCracken said. Obtaining signatures from five percent of the city’s registered voters, he noted, was not the barrier it once was, in part due to advances in computer technology. “I think given some of the changes we have seen in technology that have vastly expanded the number of initiatives that you see, particularly in cities like Houston, I think…on balance…that’s a good thing to do.”

 

Leffingwell also told the group the citizen-initiative process had flaws. One of those is that it actually takes fewer signatures to trigger a charter amendment election than it does to get a new ordinance on the ballot. “I think, at the very least, we should have an equal requirement as to a percentage of eligible voters,” Leffingwell said.

 

The two also found common ground on a push by Police Chief Art Acevedo to have blood taken from suspects in DWI cases. The department has had several ‘no refusal’ weekends on major holidays in the past few months, in which the department would obtain a search warrant to draw blood from DWI suspects who invoked their right to refuse a breathalyzer test. “I am very concerned about that, and there’s a reason why nurses at our hospitals basically decided that they didn’t want to do that anymore,” Leffingwell said. “There are a lot of inherent dangers in an invasive procedure and I don’t think the city should be exposed to that kind of liability. I realize that it really expedites the prosecution process…but on balance, I think that with the problems of an invasive procedure and also the inherent problems with basic civil rights, I would oppose it.”

 

McCracken’s assessment was that “the idea has become more trouble than it is worth. I understand the motivation and frustration law enforcement feels. I have prosecuted DWI cases before,” he said. “But to take people’s blood, I just I don’t think that is a productive path.”

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