Gov. Greg Abbott wants to have it both ways: Proclaiming Austin’s success as one of two Texas cities that made it to the elite 20 – the cities Amazon named this week as finalists for the tech giant’s second headquarters, called Amazon HQ2.
Meanwhile, doing all he can – along with his self-described wingman Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – to wreck the very business, environmental and social climate that is so appealing to Amazon and a slew of other tech companies that have flocked to Austin.
Austin was among 238 cities across North America that submitted bids for Amazon’s second headquarters. Dallas also emerged as a finalist.
There is no denying that the state’s business-friendly regulatory and tax structures are key in attracting big companies to Texas and play a role in wooing Amazon. Also, the state offers generous incentives. But here’s a newsflash: Those businesses, particularly high-tech companies, aren’t relocating or expanding by and large to red zones controlled by Republicans, but to blue cities and counties that are run by Democrats.
Along with Austin, count Dallas, San Antonio, Laredo, El Paso and Houston in that category. There are exceptions, such as Round Rock, Tarrant County and other cities and counties that benefit by their close proximity to blue zones.
In no doubt a reference to Austin, Abbott has said “Texas is being Californianized.”
He added: “It’s being done at the city level with bag bans, fracking bans, tree-cutting bans” that are “forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”
He and Patrick have used such propaganda to attack local control with the goal of replacing city councils and county governments, which are closest to the people they serve, with state government — a huge bureaucracy that is far less accountable to local voters and taxpayers.
Abbott, Patrick and many other Republicans, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, want to homogenize Austin and other blue regions with their focus on eliminating bans on single-use plastic bags, regulating bathrooms used by transgender Texans, prohibiting local tree-cutting ordinances and dictating taxation levels of local governments. Though those measures were not entirely successful in the Legislature last year, the fight over bag bans is now before the Texas Supreme Court.
Austin is unique and that is worth protecting. The city’s embrace of environmental protections, including a bag ban to curb litter and protect parks and green spaces and an ordinance protecting heritage trees, are key to its appeal to big companies whose employees are not just looking for fat paychecks, but quality lifestyles. They want opens spaces, robust arts and music scenes, bicycle lanes, clean streets, libraries and universities and local policies that reflect their values, including respecting the rights of gay and transgender people.
Here are some things Abbott, his wingman and other state Republicans might want to consider as they go about homogenizing the state: Since 2004, 524 companies relocated to the Austin region and another 863 employers expanded their workforces. That generated nearly 52,000 jobs, according to Opportunity Austin, a regional economic development arm of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.
As of last month, Austin area’s unemployment rate was 2.8 percent, more than a point below the state’s 3.9 percent and below the national unemployment rate of 4.1 percent.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler tells the Austin story this way:
“Austin is recognized as the safest big city in Texas, and the best place to start a business in the country. We lead the state of Texas in patents, startups and venture capital.”
People across the nation are voting with their feet. City demographer Ryan Robinson estimates that between 100 and 110 net persons move to Austin daily. That includes people who move out.
Instead of trying to homogenize Austin so it resembles a red city, Abbott should think about taking the Austin model to scale by promoting Austin’s progressive culture and ideals as good business practices.
I won’t hold my breath. At the very least, Abbott shouldn’t mess with success.