Lights in the Tunnel: Saturday Results

By: Owen Stroud

Not every local election is necessarily a loss to the unchecked expansion of government. Last weekend featured at least two positive indicators of a turn against frivolous spending.

On May 11, voters across Central Texas went to the polls for the final day of local elections. Though many of the races experienced typically low turnout, two of the election results are particularly noteworthy due to their fiscal implications and a slight reversal of common trends.

 

1. AISD Bond Election.

For the first time in twenty-five years, Austin ISD voters garnered enough spine to say no to some superfluous bond propositions. On May 11, two such measures were defeated, thereby saving the district a total of $402.5 million in taxpayer money. According to its description, Proposition 2 would have allegedly enabled “safety and security” and “relief from overcrowded schools”, but it also would have provided an exorbitant amount of funds towards questionable projects: the construction of three new elementary schools (based on population growth projections), the expansion of current gymnasiums, and the addition of performing arts centers to two Austin high schools. Proposition 4 would have devoted $20 million to the conversion of the old Anderson High School to a School for Young Men. Whether AISD needs these at all is debatable, but with a debt of $1.1 billion, the district certainly doesn’t have the funds to enact every board member’s pipe dream.

All four propositions experienced a close race. 199 and 836 votes separated “For” from “Against” on Props. 2 and 4 respectively. This is significant, given the average of 38,785 total votes cast. First, these election results communicate to the AISD Board that not every outrageous bond proposition is an automatic shoo-in. Secondly, the results serve as a reminder that sometimes only a comparatively small margin of votes is necessitated to defeat a reckless ballot measure or an unfit candidate. Finally, the outcome reflects a certain level of concern and dissatisfaction with the board’s decisions for several possible reasons:

  • The bond package was the largest ever proposed ($892 million).
  • The bond advisory committee presented the package extraordinarily soon (nine months).
  • The push for new schools seemed peculiar at best, since AISD had contemplated closing nine schools in 2011 due to financial constraints.
  • The project cost calculations in the spending plan were drastically exaggerated, even when provided a cushion for unanticipated costs.

Not all the results are ideal, of course. Propositions 1 and 3, totaling $489.7 million, are still inordinately expensive measures for a district that perpetually struggles with its finances. Nevertheless, in a district known for extreme political pragmatism, a good number of voters were informed enough to oppose the whims of AISD on two measures. This is a good start.

 

2. Leander Civil Service.

In a rare instance of opposition, voters rejected civil service measures by a margin of 203 votes. Civil service for the fire department would have cost taxpayers about $1 million a year, laid off 35 volunteer firefighters, and transitioned the department to a union structure. “To vote against civil service is not a vote against firefighters,” the newly-elected Andrea Navarrette reminded the press, reflecting the sentiments of the 580 voters opposing the measures. Such resistance to fiscal irresponsibility is uncommon in Leander, where voters regularly approve the hundred-million dollar bond packages the LISD enjoys shoving to a referendum every few years.

In Leander and in Austin, the May 11 elections revealed an unusual change from the status quo. Voters in districts infamous for the automatic approval of excessive spending and government expansion suddenly decided that maybe some measures weren’t absolutely necessary after all. Is this a light in the tunnel? Whether it’s a glimmer of hope or merely a nightlight, taxpayers will keep a few million dollars in their pockets in coming years thanks to a few of Saturday’s decisions. May it not be a one-time deal.

 

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