Incentivizing Frustration

This Statesman piece on local candidates sparring over economic development incentives is quite frustrating.

First, it leaves somewhat unclear what the candidates actually believe.  Certainly we know that Mayor Leffingwell supports their use (downtown hotel, Apple, LegalZoom, etc.) but the article doesn’t convey whether Brigid Shea is in blanket opposition or which deals she would have supported.  I understand that perhaps these questions did not come up at the forum, but it’s not that hard a question for a reporter to ask.

Second, it leaves unchecked the argument that these incentives are somehow impacting affordability per Ms. Shea’s contention.  How exactly do they affect affordability? The piece doesn’t make this clear. I assume the argument is that the revenue that is foregone needs to be made up through higher taxation/fees in other areas and that local taxation/fees should be lower.  Fine. I can understand not wanting to get to involved in adjudicating these claims.

But at the minimum, the $12 million in Apple/hotel deals mentioned in the piece should be put in the context of the City’s overall $2.8 billion budget to make clear to the reader that the policies being debated are highly unlikely to be a meaningful driver of affordability. Or even more simply, just point out that the $12 million in incentives implies each person in Austin is paying $1.25 per month for these subsidies.  This doesn’t mean that they are socially just or even desirable, but it makes clear their minor impact on ‘affordability’ through taxes/public fees since getting that buck and a quarter isn’t going to all of a sudden make Austin affordable for anybody. And that’s assuming that indeed these incentives are zero gain since the development would always happen anyway.

Third, while discussing the debate between Council member Spelman and his opponent Dominic Chavez the piece doesn’t clarify if there is any actual contrast in policy approach.  According to the piece, Mr. Chavez supports ‘targeted’ use of incentives, but again, a voter making up their minds is left to figure out what that might mean relative to Mr. Spelman’s support.  The piece does indicate that Mr. Chavez is concerned about ‘perception’ issues around targeted incentives.  But what does that actually mean for how he would vote differently than Mr. Spelman?

That the piece reports on this perception issue without a sense of irony is unfortunate.  Perhaps the perception issue is precisely the result of local media failing to put these development discussions in their proper context (e.g. incentives as share of budget, per capita cost of incentives) or candidates for public office being pressed for clear policy stances.

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3 Responses to Incentivizing Frustration

  1. mdahmus says:

    The worst part of all this is that the highest part of the property tax bill, by far, is AISD. The city’s tax bill is puny in comparison.

    So anything that brings business in – without any more kids to educate – is likely to be a net POSITIVE for taxpayers even if a large city tax subsidy was involved. The business pays property taxes to AISD too.

    • Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

      This is a great point.

      I got canvassed by a Brigid Shea supporter and it was frustrating to hear the canvasser make ‘affordability’ get so tightly bound with some amorphous public spending accountability argument. I feel like the hegemony of so-called ‘government waste’ arguments makes it the go-to logic for a lot of folks across contexts where it doesn’t make sense given a group’s goals (e.g. Save Our Springs harping on higher water rates).

      If we are concerned about affordability in Austin, the real drivers are more likely to be stagnant wages, insufficient housing supply, cost of mobility to job, etc. I am not sure that adopting amorphous austerity talking points is going to help create politics that can solve any of those big drivers.

  2. Tina Cannon says:

    Just thought I would mention – Spelman has several candidates. I am Tina Cannon, candidate for Place 5 as well and the only candidate to even tie Bill for an endorsement thus far in the race. It is high time that I get some equal coverage for a change.


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