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Travis County opts to ‘Energize the Expo,’ but it could be years away

Wednesday, November 6, 2019 by Jack Craver

Updated: 10:48 p.m.: Travis County voters have decided to energize the expo.

More specifically, residents voted in favor of County Proposition A, which authorizes the county to levy up to a 2 percent tax on hotel guests to fund a renovation of the aging Travis County Exposition Center on Decker Lane.

Unofficial results posted at 9:30 p.m. showed the proposition with 63 percent support.

The measure, which was put on the ballot by a unanimous vote of the Travis County Commissioners Court, did not face any visible opposition. No political action committee was organized to defeat it and no prominent groups, activists or elected officials were publicly opposed.

And yet, the proposition did not evade controversy entirely: It was at the center of a dispute between the elected governments of Travis County and the city of Austin.

While city leaders did not actively oppose the proposition, they did take a crucial step to delay it from taking effect. City Council voted unanimously in August, over the objections of county commissioners, to implement its own hotel tax to fund an expansion of the convention center.

State law caps the total hotel tax rate in a county at 17 percent – which happens to be the rate that resulted from the city’s new tax. That means the county will not be able to levy its own tax until the city finishes paying off bonds on a previous convention center expansion in 2002.

The city was able to immediately levy its tax because state law does not require voter approval of a hotel tax if it is used for a convention center project. The hapless county, however, had to wait for voter approval.

The city is currently scheduled to pay off the debt from the 2002 expansion in 2029. After that, the HOT rate will drop to 15 percent, allowing the county’s tax for the expo center to go into effect.

There has been talk at City Hall, however, of paying off the debt sooner, perhaps as early as 2022. That would allow the expo center project to move forward sooner.

Prop A was unanimously backed by the Commissioners Court and enthusiastically promoted by Rodeo Austin, by far the most important expo center user.

Rodeo Austin created a political action committee, Energize the Expo, to support what it described as an investment in an important community institution and a much-needed economic stimulus in a traditionally underserved area of eastern Travis County. That effort won the support of two Texas icons: Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and country singer Kevin Fowler.

Speaking to the Austin Monitor Tuesday morning, Commissioner Jeff Travillion, who represents the area around the expo center, said he envisions a newly renovated expo center as providing opportunities beyond the “enhancement of the rodeo operations and livestock operations.”

Travillion hopes the new and improved exposition center can serve as a “centerpoint” for people who live outside of the city, perhaps as a hub for other public services, such as health clinics and public transit.

However, before that vision is realized, the county may have a lot of waiting to do.

In a statement, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said, “I look forward to working with the city of Austin to determine how soon it will relinquish 2 percent of the Hotel Occupancy Tax so that Travis County can make the voter-authorized investment in the exposition center.”

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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