Austin State of the City: Timid Retrenchment?

Image via Austin Leadership’s Flickr

The Austin Chronicle got a hold of Mayor Leffingwell’s State of the City speech.

My reaction: We’ve got a good Mayor, Council, and Manager.  The speech is a good set of policies and initiatives already in the works.  But the national tone of policy retrenchment crept in a bit too much.  I don’t want an Austin that settles for being “well-managed” and is content to avoid being an economic devastation zone.

The address basically has two major components. One is an argument backed up by data that Austin is getting through the national recession a lot better than other cities. A second is a laundry list of how municipal government is going to continue economic growth. In order of their appearance, here are those policies:

1. Growth through renewables, media, and medical technology and manufacturing and life sciences.

2. More hotel accomodations to increase tourism.

3.  Help small business through local programs.

4. Reliable water supply (plug for WTP4 and greater conservation).

5. Reliable, affordable energy that takes into consideration potential pricing of carbon and climate change.

6. Less traffic (support for Urban Rail).

7. Affirming diversity (ethnicity, sexuality, immigration) and compassion (social service spending).

This is a solid set of priorities. Even issues like WTP4 and rail – which engender controversy and substantive disagreements – are still about Austin policymakers trying to responsibly deal with growth. In general, the speech effuses a sense of competent policymakers earnestly trying to tackle key problems.

That said, given the potential economic upheaval the US will be facing in the coming decade, I was surprised that the speech and policy priorities were so basic, and frankly, a rehash of what is already in the works. What was missing was a sense of urgency of how Austin will compete globally and how it will be a beacon of progressive governance. The speech was a good example of the policy retrenchment that seems to be going on at all levels.

Key areas like our human capital and how AISD and ACC fit into that were not discussed. A vision of meaningful sustainability was not laid out. Affordability issues and issues around economic inequality were not really discussed, even though local governments can advance important solutions, especially around housing. Part of it is time constraints in delivering a speech. I get that.  Others might say that many worthwhile initiatives are taking place, but were not mentioned. True, but those initiatives are not on the scale needed to address the problems.  Universal day care, urban growth boundaries, more public art, new social enterprises to address big community problems like financial literacy…these are areas where Austin government could show people that well-developed, targeted policies can improve our community.  I was hoping to hear more new initiatives and a bit more boldness.

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