City of Austin will need to rewrite ballot language for convention center referendum, court rules

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Austin will need to clean up its ballot language for November’s convention center referendum before voters get to the polls, a judge said Thursday, following a challenge in court from a group that opposes the expansion of the convention center.

Third Court of Appeals Chief Justice Jeff Rose ruled in favor of local NAACP chapter president Nelson Linder and attorney Fred Lewis, who said City Council, in their Aug. 8 vote to draft language for the ballot question, muddied the intent of the petition’s proposed ordinance.

In response to City Council’s decision to explore a $1.3 billion expansion proposal for the Austin Convention Center, more than 24,000 Austin voters signed a petition earlier this summer asking whether voters should have a say before the city moves forward with any convention center expansion costing more than $20 million, and whether the city should overhaul its formula to spend its hotel tax revenue.

Currently, the city spends roughly 70% of its hotel tax revenue on the convention center, with the remaining 30% split between historic preservation and cultural arts budgets. If voters pass the ordinance change, the city will have to cap its convention center-related spending to the greater of 34% or five-times the hotel tax revenue produced by the convention center. Historic preservation and cultural arts would continue to receive 15% each, with the rest of the hotel tax revenue going toward promoting Austin’s cultural tourism industry.

On Aug. 8, City Council approved the following language:

“Shall an ordinance be adopted that limits, beyond existing limits in state statute and city ordinance, the use of Austin’s Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue, including the amount of Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue that may be used to construct, operate, maintain or promote the Austin Convention Center; requires any private third-party entity managing such funds to comply with open meetings and public information laws applicable to the city; and requires voter approval for Convention Center improvements or expansions of more than $20,000,000 at an election for which the city must pay.”

Rose said the city’s approved language “inadequately describes the proposed ordinance.” In his opinion, he said the city must remove the phrase “at an election for which the city must pay,” and add information that would inform voters that the proposed law would force the city to prioritize hotel tax revenue expenditures on cultural arts, historic preservation and “Austin’s Cultural Tourism Industry.”

Ballot language has to be finalized by Sept. 5. Rose said due to the impending deadline, Rose said the court wouldn’t entertain motions for rehearing.

The city provided no comment on the ruling as of press time.

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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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