Council splits over climate bond

Zo Qadri joins Watson in opposing 2024 bond.

Council splits over climate bond
The library in Mont Royal, Quebec where I wrote this article.

Yesterday CM Ryan Alter announced on the Council message board that he plans to introduce a resolution calling for a wide variety of environmental investments, some to be funded by a bond for voters to approve in November.

"To argue we must delay for even more talking about the problem or studies of potential solutions does not meet the urgency of the moment, especially on the heels of the Supreme Court gutting the federal government’s ability to protect our environment," he wrote. "This is either a crisis that requires action, or it isn’t."

Shortly thereafter, CM Vanessa Fuentes posted a message announcing her support.

This morning Mayor Kirk Watson posted his own message, proposing a resolution to direct staff to put together a bond that will be ready for voters "no later than November 2026."

A few hours later CMs Chito Vela, Zo Qadri and Leslie Pool posted messages in support of the mayor's proposal. Pool was not suprising; she is Watson's most reliable ally.

Vela is a bit surprising but not shocking –– he likes big progressive ideas but is often eager for compromise with Watson. Qadri is very surprising because he is not known for working closely with the mayor and is the closest thing on Council to a down-the-line progressive vote.

It's a rare treat to get this type of open conflict on City Council. Adding some spice to the drama is that Alter worked for a little over a year as an aide to Watson in the Texas Senate.*

The message from Watson and his allies is that giving staff more time to craft a bond package would result in a more "comprehensive" product. Other critics of the Alter proposal, including longtime bond guru Ted Siff, have raised concerns about the city's financial situation and the big backlog of incomplete projects approved in past bonds.

In a four-page rebuttal, Alter argues that those concerns are misplaced.

The bond projects envisioned in this package –– land acquisition, tree planting, battery storage –– are not complex infrastructure projects that require years of planning and construction. Therefore, says Alter, they can be delivered immediately without forcing the delay of other planned bond projects. Nor is a bond this year will likely to affect the city's credit rating, he added.

A concern that Watson has not yet publicly raised but likely will is the other spending proposals on the ballot in November. Travis County is poised to ask voters to approve a tax to fund child care and AISD is considering asking for its own tax increase to address its (state-created) budget deficit.

So we're likely to hear from bond skeptics that City Council risks putting "too much" on the ballot, thereby jeopardizing one or more of the items. That might be a legit point; it really depends on whether a robust opposition to any of these measures emerges. In 2020 there were some influential leaders (former Cap Metro CEO Randy Clarke, CM Ann Kitchen) who were really worried that putting a $460M active transportation bond alongside Project Connect would jeopardize the latter. They both passed easily; the bond proved even more popular.

It will be interesting to see who joins Fuentes in supporting Alter's plan. Jose Velasquez and Alison Alter are already in his corner. I presume Kelly will either support neither proposal or Watson's. The question marks are Paige Ellis and Natasha Harper-Madison.

*Watson & Alter are not in the same sub-quorum on this issue, so they have not directly spoken to each other about this issue, at least not officially. The issue of sub-quorums is one that I should touch upon more frequently –– City Council for more than a decade has operated according to an interpretation of state open records law that prohibits more than five members from discussing a legislative matter in private.

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