by Daryl Slusher
So former County Judge Sarah Eckhardt is heading to the Texas Senate after State Representative Eddie Rodriguez gracefully dropped out of the runoff in the race to replace Kirk Watson. Eckhardt pulled 49.7% of the vote in the first election and Rodriguez 34%. After thinking it over Rodriguez decided his time would be better spent trying to help Democrats take a majority in the Texas House — an actual real possibility.
So that ends the elections that started in March, the Democratic and Republican primaries and the special election to replace Watson. Folks could thus be forgiven if they think that the next election is the big one in November, with the presidency, the Senate (including the seat currently held by Republican John Cornyn), all Congressional seats, state legislative elections and five City Council seats on the ballot. For Travis County residents, however, there is one more election — to fill the County Judge seat vacated by Eckhardt. Former County Judge Sam Biscoe was appointed by the Commissioners Court to temporarily serve as County Judge, but state law requires that the seat be filled in the November election.
Unless you are a precinct chair, however, you will not be eligible to vote in that election. Under a combination of state law and Democratic Party rules, the Democratic nominee will be chosen by majority vote of Democratic precinct chairs in Travis County. Travis County Republicans have the same opportunity, but so far haven’t bothered, given the heavily Democratic nature of Travis County. So whoever captures the Democratic nomination will almost certainly be the next County Judge of Travis County. She or he will serve the two years of Eckhardt’s unexpired term and the seat will be on the ballot again in 2022.
There are 136 precinct chairs in Travis County. Half must be present to constitute a quorum for this purpose. That’s 68. So, potentially, someone could win the County Judge seat with 35 votes.
State laws that govern counties in Texas are sometimes archaic. This is one of those times. County government in Texas still operates largely under a 19th Century governmental structure originally intended for rural or wild areas.
What Do You Mean, Archaic?
The first thing is the title, County Judge. A County Judge in Texas is not a judge in the judicial sense of the term, at least not in urban counties. Instead she or he is more like the top county executive. At times the County Judge in urban counties is referred to as the County Executive or top county executive — for instance when a County Judge from Texas appears on national television and there’s just not time to explain what County Judge actually means. The sometimes title County Executive, however, also tends to hint at powers that a Texas County Judge does not have. For instance County government also features a number of other elected officials: the Sheriff; the County Clerk; the Tax Assessor Collector, which in Travis County doubles as the Voter Registrar; five Constables, and a whole slew of actual courtroom Judges. All these officials run their offices independently. The primary power the County Judge has over them is in setting the County budget, and the Judge only does that as one member of the five seat Commissioners Court — the County governing body. The County Judge is though the presiding officer of the Commissioners Court.
On top of all that, the powers of counties themselves are strictly limited in Texas — although still very important. Counties are charged with operating both a civil and criminal justice system. Counties in Texas are also charged with law enforcement and road building outside of city limits and in Travis County there is a Health Department jointly run by the County and the City. The same is true of EMS service in Travis County. The Commissioners Court also votes on approval of the health district’s budget and the county plays an important role in the provision of social services.
Travis County also runs its portion of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, a preserve area for endangered species with a permit under the federal Endangered Species Act. Here too the County is in partnership with the City of Austin although each entity runs its own program.
Counties lack a lot of powers that could be useful in rapidly urbanizing counties. For instance counties have virtually no developmental regulatory authority, including no zoning authority. Counties also have very limited environmental regulatory powers. Both Democratic and Republican judges in urbanizing or near urban counties have for years sought varying levels of development regulatory authority from the legislature, but have been routinely rebuffed.
Nonetheless, County Judge is an important position. County Judges for example have the authority to declare emergencies and to issue emergency orders — as we have seen during the coronavirus crisis. As top executives, County Judges can also quietly exercise various powers within County government, for example directly suggesting to department heads what to bring forward in their budgets.
Not only do County Judges have the powers and responsibilities discussed above, in Travis County the County Judge almost always also serves on CAMPO – the regional mobility authority that decides on regional road building — and on CAPCOG — the 10 county Council of Governments. CAPCOG also has very limited powers, but at the very least serves as an instrument for regular communication among County officials in a 10 county region stretching from Giddings (Lee County) to Burnet County and from Williamson to Hays.
The candidates for County Judge are current Precinct One Commissioner Jeff Travillion, and former Travis County Democratic Party Chairs Andy Brown and Dyana Limon Mercado. Limon Mercado was chair until she very recently resigned to stand for nomination as County Judge. Limon Mercado was replaced by Katie Naranjo on Monday, in a vote of precinct chairs.
Travillion definitely has the experience edge, but, as former county party chairs, Brown and Limon Mercado probably have closer relationships with the precinct chairs. The Independent will report more in depth on the race later this week. The precinct chairs convene on August 16 to pick the County Judge nominee.
I Sort of Hear the Train a Comin’
Meanwhile the Austin City Council voted unanimously on July 27 to put a referendum for light rail on the November 3 ballot. That came in a joint meeting with the Capital Metro Board which earlier voted to move forward on the same thing. The Council also voted to put an 8.75 cent property tax increase on the ballot to partially fund the rail system.
The Council and Metro Board have long planned this, but the timing may take some people aback, especially given the price. The contagiousness of the coronavirus has delivered a blow to transit worldwide. People are less likely to want to ride in a packed bus or train car and breathe the air there or have to touch surfaces like holding onto rails or transit straps. And, that is said by a longtime advocate for rail who rides light rail in every city he visits that has one and always wanted to ride light rail from near my home in South Austin to downtown before I leave this earthly realm.
Perhaps all these factors will change by the time rail is actually built, but that is far from certain and the risks mentioned above are very real right now.
The pandemic has also led to questioning of whether higher density is the wisest way to go, at least among some. Additionally, many people are working from home now. At some point most offices will almost certainly reopen — although don’t necessarily count on it with the way our country is handling the pandemic. Even if most offices do reopen, many employers may be a lot more amenable to employees working from home, because they have now seen it can work. So that will likely reduce traffic somewhat and possibly demand for transit as well.
At the same time government budgets from the local to state level are taking hits because of drops in sales tax revenues along with increased costs to address the pandemic. The drop in sales tax revenues reflects that tens of thousands of taxpayers, including a mulititude of businesses, are suffering financially due to the economic collapse that has accompaned the coronavirus.
This brings us to the price tag. The estimated cost of the whole plan is $10 billion although the Council and Metro board voted to cut the funding appropriated now back to $7 billion. The plan also assumes that the federal government will pay 45% of the cost, far from a sure thing. Hopes were also expressed that the state government or the University of Texas might help pay for the $3 billion cut from the plan — even longer shots than the federal government.
The $10 billion would have been a City property tax rate increase of 11 cents per $100 valuation. That would mean an owner of a median priced home, $325,000, would pay an additional $357 per year or $29 per month.
The Council and Metro Board, however, cut that down to 8.75 cents or $284 per year, $23 per month.
The City’s current property tax rate is 44.31 cents per $100 valuation. So the proposed 8.75 cents would be a 19.7% increase in the City property tax rate all by itself. That’s way more than is allowed without an election under new state laws. But, the rail election will double as a property tax election.
Another challenge for rail is that the City Council majority on the Land Development Code issue, and a number of local urbanists, spent the last three or four years tying rail ideologically to their perceived need to upzone huge portions of existing single family neighborhoods in the central city — to allow four to six houses per existing lot. In the eyes of many central city dwellers this not only endangers their biggest investment but in many cases intrudes on their long held plans for aging in place. Central city precincts have always been the biggest supporters of rail and will probably remain so, but the margin could drop if people connect rail to the LDC rewrite — something urbanists, as already noted, have been doing for several years now.
The City Council appears to be feeling particularly invulnerable now, especially with the election of Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza to be County Attorney. So perhaps they can overcome all these factors; perhaps there are a lot of new voters that are not that concerned with the factors I list above. But, by anything approaching traditional political analysis this looks like a rather risky time politically to be putting forward a rail election in Austin that increases the City property tax rate by almost 20 percent.
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