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Convention center proponents eyeing new PAC to challenge expected ballot question

Thursday, June 27, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Mayor Steve Adler’s former campaign manager is preparing to launch a political action committee to lobby in favor of the proposed expansion of the Austin Convention Center if a group pushing a ballot question challenging the expansion succeeds in its petition drive. The group wants to force a public vote on the expansion as well as a restructuring of how the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax funds are used.

Jim Wick, who now works as a political consultant, told the Austin Monitor he anticipates that the group Unconventional Austin will succeed in its ongoing petition drive seeking public approval of capital projects at the convention center that cost more than $20 million. City Council recently unanimously approved an expansion scenario that is projected to cost around $1.2 billion, with the costs covered by the tax paid by hotel guests.

Wick said he is looking forward to July 15 when the group behind the petition drive has to disclose its funding source, with the expectation that those behind last fall’s ballot proposals J and K are likely linked to this effort.

“I want to see where their money is coming from first before we do anything … that’s the biggest question in what’s happening here,” Wick said. “We don’t know where its money is coming from to fund this. Austinites are pretty shrewd about discerning when there are malevolent forces afoot to undercut municipal governance, which there have been multiple attempts at in the last few years, and all of them have been funded by special corporate interests that seek to influence legislation for their own benefit. These guys are dropping $100,000 on this, easy, just like the Prop K initiative.”

Wick said proponents of increased funding for music and arts, services for the homeless and the local hotel lodging industry are the most likely sources of funds for the PAC he intends to form if the Unconventional Austin ballot question goes before voters.

The current petition is being spearheaded by frequent critics of the convention center, who argue that it relies on hotel tax funds to keep from operating at a deficit that would otherwise need to be covered by money from the city’s General Fund. On Wednesday, the group released a statement criticizing the center’s financial performance, showing that its operational costs exceeded its revenue from business operations by $43 million in the most recent budget year, up from $24.3 million two years prior.

The group wants the convention center’s use of hotel tax funds to cover operational costs limited to the greater of 34 percent of total annual tax receipts or five times the calculated total of hotel tax receipts generated through convention business. Along with existing hotel tax expenditures given to cultural arts and historic preservation, which are capped by state law at 15 percent of total receipts, that proposed reallocation would create a surplus the group proposes using on tourism-related advertising, transit related to tourism and creation of cultural venues.

“It’s time for the City Council to stop digging deeper into the same old hole, and to start funding what we all, visitors and residents alike, love about Austin – live music, vibrant arts, unique local businesses, our beautiful parks, waterways, and historic sites,” Bill Bunch, a tourism commissioner who is also a member of Unconventional Austin, said in the statement.

Bunch is among the handful of acknowledged leaders of the group, which also includes Tourism Commissioner John Riedie, Sylvia Pedley, Bill Oliver and Lucas Burdick, who helped with a petition drive that led to a ballot question last fall that sought voter approval of major changes to the city’s land use code. That ballot question was voted down and was supported in part by the political action committee IndyAustin, which received funding from a variety of sources.

Wick said he expects Unconventional Austin’s financial disclosure next month to list a nonprofit group as the source of its money, a move that would reveal little about who else might be connected to it.

Proponents of the expansion have questioned whether the alternative proposed uses would be allowed by the state. They argue that a 2 percent increase in the hotel tax to help pay for the expansion would also generate more money for the local music industry and historic preservation.

City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who has written on his campaign blog in support of the convention center expansion, said the strength of Austin’s tourism economy shows the convention center is doing its job enhancing tourism.

“Our convention center is working and the tourism industry is strong, as it was designed to do, and that is literally why the state created the hotel tax regime,” he said.

“The reason why the Council is unanimously supportive of expansion, is that taking this action is the only way to expand the 15 percent for arts and music and the 15 percent for historic preservation. That’s in addition to the significant amount of public space we’ll get without having to raise anyone’s property taxes.”

Photo by JD Lasica made available through a Creative Commons license.

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