Mayor Leffingwell’s State of the City address featured several themes I found compelling; however, I was left wanting more policy specifics about our future direction.
The Mayor embraced the concept of ‘public value’ by reiterating that wise policy must build on top of the secular trends that bolster Austin’s economic fortunes. “Attitude not latitude” as he put it. Further, I was happy that he made a strong, progressive case for the “attitude” being characterized by public investment (a.k.a. taxing ourselves to buy shared public goods). Finally, I was grateful that he spotlighted important trends – such as Austin’s booming Latino population – with very concrete data to make fuzzily understood concepts reality. For example, he pointed out that 60% of AISD’s enrollment is Latino.
On the other hand, for a speech focused on the importance of embracing change to preserve what makes Austin special, it was lacking a detailed policy vision to make change appealing to the median voter. The Mayor mostly focused on defining the value of Austin’s many dollar-importing festivals, Formula 1, and the future medical school. In other words, it was a defense of a status quo that has detractors but is not actually threatened or likely to be the most important set of policy choices in determining the well-being of Austinites.
There was one important exception: urban rail.
The Mayor was clear in his belief that a multi-modal solution to Austin’s congestion was needed; he vowed to push for a rail referendum before the completion of his current term. Some of the devilish details – such as the actual route for the rail – were not covered.
Given the prominence of affordability in the local political conversation and inequality in the national one, I was expecting more policies aimed at ameliorating the precarious position of middle-class and working poor Austinites.
There was no discussion of housing supply, which was a bit of a lost opportunity since he was addressing the Real Estate Council of Austin. While urban rail is a key part of helping Austinites reduce an expensive dependence on cars for mobility, it is only one tool. Given the RECA setting, I would have expected discussion of the need to create a more sensible land use strategy as well as invest in other mobility alternatives besides rail.
Perhaps the Mayor was prioritizing a few issue areas and a more expansive agenda would not have been prudent given the unsettled nature of electoral coalitions in the current council and the move to single-member districts. And perhaps that is my biggest observation about the speech: it seems that there’s currently a vacuum of policy ideas matching the City’s aspirations to be a global model of livability.