Texas Supreme Court said it will not hear challenge over convention center referendum, suit taken to lower courts

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The state’s highest court said it will not hear an emergency petition on a lawsuit filed by local NAACP President Nelson Linder over the city’s choice of ballot language for the upcoming Austin Convention Center expansion referendum, according to court documents.

The Texas Supreme Court “denied without prejudice” the petition submitted Aug. 14 by Linder’s attorney Fred Lewis. The suit alleged the city of Austin used “false and misleading” language for the ballot question voters will see Nov. 5, asking whether any expansion of Austin’s downtown convention center costing more than $20 million should be put to a public vote.

A city spokesperson said the issue was far from over, however, as Lewis and Linder already filed a follow-up suit in the Third Court of Appeals. The spokesperson said the court refused the case because it tried to skip the appeals court and go straight to the Supreme Court without a compelling reason. Lewis said he was not given a specific reason but called the city’s reasoning likely.

The challenge over the petition language is on a tight deadline—November ballots have to be finalized to go out to the printer by Sept. 5, Lewis said.

The ballot question is a result of a citizen petition that objected to the city’s $1.3 billion plan to expand the convention center. The petition garnered over 24,000 valid signatures, meeting the threshold for City Council to either adopt the proposed ordinance or call an election on the question. City Council chose to call an election Aug. 9.

However, in calling the election, City Council members were, by law, able to edit the petition’s language before placing the question on the ballot. The chosen language highlighted the taxpayer cost to hold an election and, according to the Linder and Lewis suit, withheld specific details about the proposed change to how the city spends its hotel occupancy tax revenue.

Paired with requiring public consent before convention center expansion, the petition signers also agreed that the city should change its formula on spending hotel tax revenue. Currently, 70% of said revenue is spent on the convention center and the remaining 30% is split between cultural arts and historic preservation initiatives.

The petition proposed the city uphold the cultural arts and historic preservation expenditures but cap the convention center’s portion at 34%, or five times the amount of hotel tax generated by the convention center, with the remaining revenue spent on promoting Austin’s other tourism drivers, such as music and art venues.

Lewis said there was no timeline on a response from the appeals court.

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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