Austin Budget: Special Interests or Public Interest?

Over at the Austin Post, Marius argues that the growth in utility and police spending, along with animal vaccinations spending, is emblematic of a political culture where “Austin’s citizens right now are only heard as vocal minorities or quiet economic heavyweights…”.  He then goes on to make a series of suggestions for better public engagement.

It seems to me that utilities are growing because of factors beyond political influence. Growth in utility spending is driven by a need for price-volatile fuel, population growth driving demand for services, the fact that they have a lot of professional labor and thus are affected by medical inflation, and so on. Political influence might be a contributor, but it seems like it would be a tiny one.  I think this argument is more in line with Marius’ desire to privatize our public utilities.

As for public safety, I think there is definitely a lot of anecdotal evidence that Austin’s public safety unions are savvy political operators, but both the Citizen Survey and the City Manager’s citywide budget meetings revealed that the public REALLY likes protecting public safety services. So, it’s hard to see that as an undemocratic capture by a tiny lobby.  Certainly, I agree with Marius that there are better ways of using existing public spending on public safety to create improvements in the value delivered, but that is different from mis-labeling the popularity of public safety services as some kind of special interest power grab.

We should always strive to do more to make local government more accountable to local citizens.  I’ve been surprised that public financing of campaigns is not a leading policy reform amidst Austin activist circles.  Geographic single-member (instead of at-large) districts might upset Marius since they will probably create parochialism, but I find the arguments in favor of advocacy localization compelling and probably value parochialism more than Marius. I agree about better citizen engagement tools and better follow through on what exists (i.e. the City Manager could start taking comments on his blog, Channel 6 could make non-City Council meetings available on demand, Austin could start a data.gov of local information feeds, etc.)

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