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Greg Casar optimistic but ready to fight in 2019

Wednesday, December 26, 2018 by Jack Craver

Council Member Greg Casar has a lot of good things to say about 2018.

“In January we laid out a set of goals,” he said, referring to his staff. “We accomplished all of the big priorities.”

“Even though we’re under state leadership that is hostile to those sorts of goals, I think that the community and the Council came together around really important issues this year,” he adds.

First, Council and voters approved a $250 million affordable housing bond. The bond, which voters backed overwhelmingly in November, was far larger than the $87 million initially proposed by city staff last year. Casar vocally advocated for a much larger measure, arguing not only that the city’s housing crisis demanded more, but that voters, who only six years ago rejected a $75 million measure, were ready to do something drastic on housing.

Another major policy victory for Casar came when Council approved a paid sick leave ordinance making Austin the first city in the South to require employers to offer paid time off for an illness or a family member’s illness.

The paid sick leave ordinance was recently enjoined by a state appeals court, which ruled that the ordinance violates the state’s minimum wage law, but Casar is nevertheless optimistic. The three judges on the panel who made the ruling are Republicans, two of whom were defeated in their bids for re-election in November and replaced by “more thoughtful judges.”

Republican legislators’ stated plans to pre-empt the law in the coming legislative session are to be expected, said Casar, who is eager for the fight. He believes it was a major victory that Austin, and later San Antonio, approved sick leave ordinances before the Legislature could act, thereby forcing legislators to vote “to take people’s rights away,” a fact that Casar believes will galvanize workers who benefit from the ordinance.

As a result, the legislative session will be “about more than plastic bag (bans) and taxes,” he said, referencing two local control issues that GOP leaders are planning to target. The debate over paid sick leave will force Republicans to defend what Casar believes is not only a bad position, but an unpopular one.

“Obviously, environmental protections are critical; obviously, revenue caps will be devastating to working people, and we’ll fight them on both of those fronts, but I think it’s really important for everyday working folks in Texas to know where their reps stand on something as basic as sick days,” he said.

Casar sees the police union contract that Council approved in October as another major progressive policy victory, lauding the contract for including “the most significant police oversight reforms in recent memory.”

Finally, Casar is proud of Council’s approval of “freedom city” policies aimed at protecting undocumented immigrants from deportation.

In his district, Casar is excited for the city to do something about a major piece of vacant land in the St. Johns neighborhood. Once the site of a Home Depot and a car dealership, the parcel was purchased by the city years ago and is envisioned as a likely site of future affordable housing and other amenities residents of the area have expressed interest in, such as youth recreation and access to healthy food.

There were definitely some things that could have gone better last year. In the wake of CodeNEXT’s demise, Casar said the city still has a lot of work to do to put in place new land development rules that allow for more housing, facilitate transit and reduce sprawl.

But even if those goals weren’t achieved through a new code this year, Casar said that the conversation around land use has improved as a result.

“Part of the goal this year is to change the narrative and the politics around being pro-housing. I think community members and Council members and the mayor did a good job of starting to change the narrative about why it’s important to fight the housing shortage,” he said. “I think the elections were indications that that message is getting out there.”

He highlighted the failure of Prop J, the measure supported by anti-CodeNEXT activists that would have required voter approval and a lengthy waiting period for any overhaul of the land development code.

While the budget funded a number of important priorities, Casar said Council could have done more, including allocating more money to combat homelessness. Unfortunately, he said, some of his colleagues chose to limit that “because of the rhetoric stirred up by folks at the Legislature” about property taxes. Or as he describes it, “This lie that has been propagated by right-wing folks that it’s city property taxes that are killing me.”

Voters’ overwhelming support for the entire slate of bonds on the ballot this year gives Casar hope that people are wising up to what he views as misleading rhetoric about city spending. With the $925 million investment that Austinites approved for housing, parks, flood infrastructure, cultural facilities and public safety, Casar believes the city can turn its focus to gearing up for another big investment in 2020, this time for public transit.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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