For anyone wanting to assess the possibilities in the upcoming Prop A election, studying the results from the May 2021 municipal election is a good place to start. Prop A is the costly, high stakes, petition driven referendum on whether to require two cops per 1,000 residents. For our pre-election analysis the key question is whether November Prop A will play out more like May Prop B, aka voter reinstatement of the camping ban, or more closely resemble the proposed switch to a Strong Mayor form of government (Prop F on the May ballot). Those two May propositions met very different fates.
As readers likely recall, on Prop B — with homeless encampments lining most highways, major streets and many parks — voters decided they needed to intervene, reel in the Council, and reverse the Council majority’s 2019 repeal of the camping ban. Prop B passed by a 57% to 43% margin in what that Austin American-Statesman called a “rebuke to City leadership.”
On the same day that Prop B passed, the Strong Mayor initiative went down in flames despite the campaign being run by a bevy of political operatives tied to Mayor Steve Adler, all of whom sported solid won-loss records. Nonetheless, discerning Austin voters rejected Strong Mayor by an amazing 86% to 14% margin. This was clearly an example of Austin voters not falling for the hype, thinking the issue through and then deciding that they preferred the checks and balances of the current Council-Manager form of government, with its diffused bases of power. Of course another aspect of the strong mayor contest was that many people envisioned who their worst nightmare as an actual Strong Mayor would be and then concluded that while the Council-Manager system might have some flaws, it is a lot less risky than switching to strong mayor.
So which pattern will November’s Prop A most resemble? The most direct and obvious connection between the upcoming November Prop A and May Prop B is that they both originated with the same political group. That is Save Austin Now, led by Travis County Republican Party Chair Matt Mackowiak. Save Austin Now forced both propositions onto the municipal ballot through successful petition drives. Both initiatives (November Prop A and May Prop B) seek to reverse what many Austin residents perceive as spectacular ideological overreach by the Council. As already noted, in May it was the Council’s summer 2019 vote to repeal the camping ban, a proposal brought to the Council by Council Member Greg Casar and also ardently championed by then Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Mayor Steve Adler. The current measure, Prop A, stems from the Council’s summer of 2020 vote to cut the Austin Police Department (APD) budget. That move included the elimination of 150 sworn officer positions and the cancellation of cadet classes for an entire year. That effort was also spearheaded by Casar, and Garza, along with now Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper Madison, Adler, and then Council Member Jimmy Flannigan. Ultimately the cuts to APD passed on an unanimous Council vote.
In the Council’s defense their vote to slash the police budget and defund cadet classes came during the country’s reckoning with race and policing after the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis. The Council faced demands from hundreds of angry speakers that Austin “Defund the Police.” The Council was also acting in the wake of missteps by APD including the shooting death of Michael Ramos. Police shot him with a bean bag round while he stood unarmed with his hands in the air. Then, when a stunned Ramos leaped in his car and tried to flee, police shot him dead. Later, when the Floyd protests broke out, APD overreacted by firing “less lethal” rounds at protestors. They seriously injured several protestors who appear to have been lawfully exercising their right to protest.
The Council budget vote occurred just as an historic rise in violent crime was getting underway. That includes a spike in murders both last year and this year. This year Austin’s number of murders has already passed the highest annual total in the 61 years since APD began keeping records.
Meanwhile the number of officers leaving the force far exceed the usual levels. This has been widely attributed to a dramatic drop in morale after the Council defund vote.
As a result of the increases in crime and reduction in force, 911 response times have increased significantly. As a recent Statesman investigation found, “The average response to the most serious emergencies rose to 9 minutes, an increase of 1 minute, 30 seconds — 17% — during the past year.”
This relates to a core debate in the campaign, whether or not Austin is a safe city. Prop A proponents maintain that the Council’s policies have made Austin unsafe. They blame the spiraling murder rate and rising violent crime on the Council’s budget cuts. Mayor Steve Adler, Council Member Greg Casar, the Prop A campaign and others point out, correctly, that other cities who did not cut their police budgets are experiencing similar increases in crime. In Austin, however, the Council’s budget cuts resulted in handicapping the police response to the increases in violent crime that have occurred — as evidenced in the increase in 911 response times.
Adler, Casar et al also maintain, once again correctly, that Austin remains relatively safer than most other cities. Sometimes this claim is stated flatly that Austin is safe, as Adler did in his August 30 State of the City Address: “There is a political advantage being sought by those creating the false perception that Austin is unsafe. . . We are not dealing with a city that is unsafe, but with those working hard to create the perception that we are unsafe.” The risk with this binary choice is that some voters might reason that the Mayor and some Council Members still don’t acknowledge that any problems resulted from their slashing of the police budget, and thus conclude that voters need to step in and force the Council to hire 2.0 cops per 1,000.
Mackowiak and other Prop A backers also hammer on APD’s recent announcement that police officers will no longer respond to a number of types of crime unless the crime is still in progress. In late September, APD announced that beginning October 1 citizens should no longer call 911, according to an APD memo,
- “When there is no immediate threat to life or property
- Where crimes are no longer in progress (and)
- When the suspect(s) are no longer on scene or in sight.”
Instead, continued the memo, “In these types of situations the community is encouraged to submit a non-emergency police report online at iReportAustin.com or by calling 3-1-1.”
APD offered a lengthy list of situations and types of crime in which the new approach will apply:
- “Animal Service
- Auto Theft
- Burglary of residence, business or vehicle
- Crashes not requiring a tow, when there are not injuries, both drivers have proof of insurance and a driver’s license, and when neither driver is impaired
- COVID-19 Violations
- Verbal Disturbances
- Suspicious Person / Vehicle
The memo explained that the changes “will provide some relief to APD’s current staffing challenges by allowing officers to focus on responding to 9-1-1 calls involving immediate threats to life or property in a timely manner. ” The changes were attributed to “recent staffing challenges, as well as recommendations from the Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) Task Force aimed at finding alternative response solutions to non-emergency calls that do not involve sending a police officer,” and as “a result of a recent review of APD’s patrol COVID mitigation protocols.”
Police Chief Joseph Chacon offered some assurances, “Safety is our department’s number one priority. APD will still respond to emergency situations and thoroughly investigate crimes reported to the Department.” Chacon later explained further that crimes will still be investigated, that this approach just relieves officers on the street from having to answer some types of calls where the crime is no longer in progress.
Of course nuance is not generally a facet of campaigns. Unsurprisingly, the Save Austin Now campaign jumped on the announcement as simply another level of anarchy wrought by the Council’s slashing of the police budget. This new APD policy deserves a longer discussion, but our purpose here is to analyze the upcoming Prop A election. As far as the election, this news coming out now likely gives Prop A a boost. It certainly gives the No Way On Prop A an additional hurdle to clear.
So, from the summary above, it is clear that Prop A features some clear parallels to May Prop B, namely citizen dismay and anger at a key Council decision.
Similarities to the Strong Mayor Referendum
On the other hand Prop A features some elements that could create the type of vulnerabilities that caused voters to reject the strong mayor proposal — although a defeat by anywhere near that kind of margin is extremely unlikely. Prop A’s biggest electoral weakness is its hefty price tag. The budget increases necessary to hire that many cops would likely have to be drawn primarily from property taxes, or from budget cuts to other General Fund departments like Parks and Recreation, Libraries, Fire and EMS. Most likely there would be a combination of property tax increases and budget cuts to non-Police departments.
As the Independent reported last week the pro Prop A campaign is misleadingly claiming that their proposal would only increase the City budget by 1.2%. They calculate that number by using the lowest of the City Financial Office’s estimates of Prop A’s cost and then calculating what percentages that is of the entire City budget. Funding for APD, however, has to come from the City’s General Fund, which is just over a fourth the size of the overall City budget. Using the General Fund and the full range of City estimates, Prop A would result in a increase of 4.5 to 9.9% — based on the current size of the General Fund, and that’s just in the first year. Similar amounts would be added for each of five years. The Prop A campaign claim does not include the additional four years of cost.
The larger overall City budget, which Prop A used to calculate their alleged 1.2% increase includes Austin Energy, Austin Water, Austin Bergstrom International Airport, the Resource Recovery Department, Public Works and the Convention Center.
Council Member Mackenzie Kelly has at least tacitly acknowledged that Prop A will mean cuts. She has suggested cuts in social services and specifically in spending on the homeless.
The specter of budget cuts has also split local unions from the traditional Solidarity Forever union philosophy. The Austin Police Association (APA), the police union, supports Prop A. APA’s leader Ken Casaday is even on the board of Save Austin Now, according to the Save Austin Now PAC website. The local AFSCME chapter (City and County employees union), the Austin Firefighters Association, and the union representing EMS employees have all come out against Prop A.
Another potential weakness for Prop A has to do with local governance. While this may sound like a dry category of interest to only a few, there are a lot of people in Austin with strong ideas on local governance. See the strong mayor result. The primary governance issue with Prop A is the loss in Council and City Management authority over the City budget. That would not be just this Council, but future ones as well. Under the City Charter the City Manager develops a budget and presents it to the Council. The Council has the power to make additions and deletions and then passes a budget. A locked in number of 2.0 officers per one thousand residents would seriously limit the City Manager’s and Council’s budgetary flexibility. This would come on top of a new State law that took away the City’s, and the Council’s, ability to ever again cut the police budget without an election; a reaction to the Council’s 2020 Defund vote. So, if Prop A passes it will pile on top of the state action and reduce City government’s budget flexibility every year, every day really.
So, given the budgetary and governance issues, it is possible that Austin voters will closely examine what Prop A requires and reject it, as they did the strong mayor proposal.
Early voting begins Monday October 18 and ends Friday October 29. Election day is November 2.
In our next installment we will continue our pre-election analysis with a look at potential coalitions and voting blocs.
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