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Convention center opponents challenge city’s language on ballot measure

Thursday, August 15, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The president of the Austin NAACP has petitioned the Texas Supreme Court over the ballot language approved by City Council last week related to a challenge to a planned expansion of the Austin Convention Center.

The Tuesday filing by Nelson Linder was prepared by attorney Fred Lewis, who is also a member of the Unconventional Austin political action committee that gathered the petition signatures triggering the ballot question. The filing argues that the ballot language differs from the petition language in two distinct areas: in stating the city would have to pay for any election to decide on an expansion of the convention center; and omitting language stating that Hotel Occupancy Tax funds not used by the convention center would be directed to support cultural tourism.

Lewis said the city could avoid the election expense by holding any convention center ballot item during a general election on even-numbered years.

The filing asks for an emergency decision by the Texas Supreme Court to decide the matter before the city has to file final ballot language by the first week of September.

Responding to the filing via email, a city spokesman wrote, “Our Council takes its job seriously and tried its best to craft ballot language that highlights the chief features of the petitioned ordinance. The city will spend the necessary time, effort and funds required to respond to the lawsuit.”

Council approved ballot language early last Friday morning in an 8-2 vote, with Council members Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchen voting against and Alison Alter abstaining.

The language reads:

Shall an ordinance be adopted that limits, beyond existing limits in state statute and city ordinance, the use of Austin’s Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue, including the amount of Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue that may be used to construct, operate, maintain, or promote the Austin Convention Center requires any private third-party entity managing such funds to comply with open meetings and public information laws applicable to the city; and requires voter approval for Convention Center improvements or expansions of more than $20,000,000 at an election for which the city must pay.

During its discussion, Council considered several amendments to the language under consideration, with Kitchen pushing to include a section regarding use of HOT revenue for cultural tourism purposes.

“One of the tenets of the law in terms of what our criteria is for setting the ballot language is that we cannot omit chief features that reflect the measure’s character and purpose,” Kitchen said. “I feel very strongly that (the cultural tourism section) is necessary to reflect the measure’s character and purpose, and to leave it out or to refer to it in a way other than cultural tourism would be omitting a chief feature.”

Mayor Steve Adler, who has spent more than two years pushing for a recent Council-supported plan to spend $1.2 billion in hotel tax revenue to expand the convention center, said portions of the petitioners’ language seemed to purposely confuse voters over how hotel tax money can be used. State law calls for that money to be used for convention center projects and expenses, cultural arts, historic preservation, and programs to support cultural tourism.

“What this petition is about is suggesting we should try to limit the use of HOT (revenue) for the construction, operation, maintenance or promotion of the Austin Convention Center,” he said. “The language about how the balance of the money should be spent in certain ways … that’s how the balance of the money is supposed to be spent and I don’t want to mislead people to think the balance of the money not spent on the convention center could be spent on anything else or create the impression that this is creating new spending areas.”

Unconventional Austin supporters launched the petition drive over concerns that the convention center uses too much of the city’s hotel tax revenue without producing a corresponding amount of economic impact. If the ballot measure is approved it would force an election to approve any capital project for the convention center costing more than $20 million.

During public comment ahead of the Council vote, UA organizer and Tourism Commission member Bill Bunch said the amended ballot language withholds information from voters about the full intent of the measure.

“The language is fair, it’s accurate and it starts with ‘a petitioned ordinance.’ Your version sounds like it’s a City Council-sponsored ordinance,” he said. “That’s misleading to voters. You’re now putting something on the ballot that doesn’t even tell them it’s a petitioned ordinance and has some gobbledygook, and unless you go with an amendment that at least mentions cultural tourism it completely mischaracterizes what’s being proposed.”

See full complaint below.

Download (PDF, 561KB)

This story has been changed to correct an error that originally identified the $1.2 billion in hotel tax revenue as “1.2 million,” which is incorrect. Photo by Daniel Morrison made available through a Creative Commons license.

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