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Expo center supporters hope voters don’t confuse the two different Prop A’s

Thursday, October 17, 2019 by Jack Craver

Ballot propositions can often be confusing – especially when there are multiple propositions with the same name.

This is exactly what concerns those campaigning for Travis County Proposition A. The measure they support would authorize the county to levy a 2 percent Hotel Occupancy Tax to fund a reconstruction of the Travis County Exposition Center, best known as the home of the annual Star of Texas Fair & Rodeo.

Fortunately for Energize the Expo, the political action committee supporting the measure, there does not appear to be any public opposition to the proposition.

However, there is a very public campaign opposing city of Austin Prop A, which has nothing to do with the expo center. That measure, which was driven by a group of neighborhood activists and a prominent local business mogul trying to block the construction of a Major League Soccer stadium in North Austin, would require voter approval for the use of any city land for an entertainment or sports facility.

PACE PAC – whose name stands for Parks, Arts, Culture and Entertainment and which is largely funded by SXSW LLC – is investing in mailers, radio spots and TV ads to defeat City Prop A, which the group argues will put at risk many of the long-term leases the city has with nonprofit groups such as the Long Center, the YMCA and Trail of Lights. Even Circuit of the Americas chairman Bobby Epstein, who funded the petition drive to put City Prop A on the ballot, has said he no longer supports the measure.

It’s up to Energize the Expo to make sure that the messaging against City Prop A doesn’t trickle down to County Prop A.

“We’re concerned. It’s going to be important to educate the public and it’s going to be important to talk about what’s at stake,” said Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion, who is supporting County Prop A along with all four of his colleagues on the Commissioners Court.

If County Prop A is approved, the county will be able to levy the 2 percent tax for the expo center as soon as the city of Austin is done paying off the debt on the expansion of the Austin Convention Center approved by voters in 1998. That is currently scheduled to happen in 2028, but there has been talk at City Hall about paying off the debt as soon as 2021.

“What it does is it gets us in line,” said Travillion.

City leaders and county leaders have butted heads over the Hotel Occupancy Tax in recent months. The Commissioners Court stated its intention to ask for a voter-approved hotel tax to renovate the expo center, which would raise overall hotel taxes in Austin to 17 percent, the maximum allowed under state law. In response, City Council rushed to push through a separate 2 percent hotel tax that did not require voter approval (and which is only available to cities) to fund a convention center expansion.

Jennifer Stevens, a spokesperson for Energize the Expo, said that the disagreement between the city and county over hotel taxes does not appear to have led to any organized opposition to County Prop A. She stresses that approving the measure does not in any way endanger plans for the expansion of the convention center.

“It’s really kind of Switzerland,” she said of County Prop A. She noted the support of the county commissioners, local NAACP chapter President Nelson Linder, and last but not least, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and country star Kevin Fowler, both big supporters of the rodeo.

Energize the Expo makes it clear in all of its campaign material that the measure it supports is Travis County Prop A, not city of Austin Prop A, Stevens said.

Mark Littlefield, a longtime local operative and lobbyist who is running the campaign to defeat city of Austin Prop A, said his group is similarly clear about which measure it opposes. The prospect of voters getting mixed up is a mild concern of his, he said.

“When you’re a political consultant you’re always worried about voters being confused and voters not understanding,” he said. “Frequently that’s just political consultants being nervous.”

This story has been changed since publication to clarify that there is not “bad blood” between the city and county. Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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