As residents and community leaders across San Antonio weigh three propositions on November’s ballot that would use a portion of sales tax revenue to continue to fund the City’s pre-K program, establish job training and education programs, and expand mass transit, the campaigns behind those initiatives raised big bucks to convince them to vote yes.
Many voters still have questions about each initiative and the Keep Pre-K 4 SA, Ready to Work SA, and Yes for Mobility political action committees have raised more than $1 million among them for promotional campaigns, according to the latest campaign finance reports posted this week.
From July 1 to Sept. 24, the Keep Pre-K 4 SA PAC – which has the largest war chest –raised nearly $770,000, according to its latest report. Pre-K 4 SA was first approved by voters in 2012 and is seeking re-authorization for a one-eighth-cent sales tax for another eight years.
The workforce development PAC, which started its campaign late in the summer, pulled in $183,000 from Aug. 13 to Sept. 24. So far, it’s spent $97,200. The Ready to Work SA workforce development program would reallocate a separate one-eighth-cent from sales tax that is currently used for aquifer protection and trail development to job training and scholarships. The four-year, $154 million program is aimed at 40,000 workers who lost their jobs or are underemployed because of the coronavirus pandemic and at addressing generational poverty that existed in San Antonio long before.
When that tax expires in 2025, VIA Metropolitan Transit wants voters to approve shifting it again – in perpetuity – towards improving its public transportation system in 2026. VIA receives less than three-quarters of a percent of the City’s share of sales tax (1 percent) while most transportation agencies in large Texas metropolitan areas dedicate a full cent.
Meanwhile, City Council voted to continue the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program with debt funded through its annual budget, and Bexar County has promised to find funding for the trail system next year. A recent Bexar Facts/KSAT/San Antonio Report poll found overwhelming support for the three ballot propositions, but many voters surveyed are concerned about taking the sales tax away from the aquifer and trail programs.
During virtual debates held this week, opponents of the workforce and transportation initiatives said there aren’t enough details about what the money will be used for or enough data to support city leaders’ contention that the investment will pay off. A main criticism of VIA’s initiative is that it’s asking voters to approve a tax reallocation in 2020 that won’t take effect until 2026.
Initially, VIA wanted its tax to start next year, but Mayor Ron Nirenberg brokered a compromise to get the workforce initiative funded first. The transit agency agreed to wait, but is asking voters to commit the funding now.
“The tax doesn’t happen until 2026 – why don’t we just wait?” former District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse said during a discussion on his social media platforms Tuesday. Brockhouse narrowly lost a bid to unseat Nirenberg in 2019 and opposes the workforce and transportation taxes.
During a separate event, VIA board trustee Marina Alderete Gavito explained that “if we had it our way, we’d have [the tax allocation] tomorrow” but the agreed-upon compromise will help the local economy recover.
“VIA is underfunded, and we are trying to right-size the budget for us,” she said.
Though the initiatives would represent no net increase of taxes, Brockhouse characterizes them as “new taxes” because the money will be used for different programs.
If voters don’t approve these measures, we get a tax cut, Brockhouse said, but City Hall and Nirenberg want residents to “just shut up and keep paying.”
He said voters should consider continuing the sales tax for aquifer protection and trail programs instead by voting against the workforce development and mass transit propositions.
“The Edwards Aquifer Protection program would not [automatically] regain that one-eighth of a cent” if voters reject funding for workforce and transportation, said Francine Romero, who chairs the Department of Public Administration at the University of Texas in San Antonio.
Romero spoke during a debate on the propositions hosted by the local chapter of the League of Women Voters on Monday. She also chairs the City’s Conservation Advisory Board, which provides oversight for the aquifer protection program and makes recommendations to City Council. Watch the debate here.
The next opportunity to hold a vote on another sales tax allocation is 2022.
But it’s not an “either or” decision when it comes to aquifer protection and workforce development, Nirenberg told the San Antonio Report. “We can do both … We’ve locked in the aquifer protection program” with other sources of funding.
And calling these initiatives “new taxes” may score some political points, he said, “but it’s dead wrong, for one, and it’s disingenuous.”
But there are still lingering questions about how the workforce program will be structured, said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said during the Monday debate.
How much will be allocated to two- and four-year degrees compared to certificates and and apprenticeships? Which industries will be focused on? City officials said more details will be released this week, just before early voting starts Tuesday.
Treviño also took issue with the number of people who would benefit directly from this new program.
“If we’re going to be redirecting [the money] … it should go to a program that supports everyone,” he said.
The program will use as its model Project Quest, which connects residents to education and provides funding for wrap-around services such as child care and other expenses that hold people back from going to school or getting trained.
For every dollar invested in Project Quest, there’s a return on investment of more than $19 back into the economy, said Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), citing the nonprofit’s figures.
Better-educated and higher-paid residents contribute to a larger economy that has regional ripple effects, she said. “[This] access to educational attainment would continue to break the cycle of generational poverty and unfortunate legacy of economic segregation in our city.”
There is less opposition to reauthorizing funding for Pre-K 4 SA, which directly serves 2,000 students each year.
But Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said the City should leave early childhood education to other entities.
“I just don’t think we should be in the business of educating our youngsters,” Perry said during the debate.
Last year, state lawmakers approved funding for full-day pre-K, but that program doesn’t expand the number of children who qualify or can participate, said Kate Rogers, an advisor to the Keep Pre-K 4 SA campaign. As budgets at all levels of government reel in the wake of the pandemic, nothing is safe from cuts, Rogers said.
“This is not the time to back away from our local investment on our children and our future,” she said. “This is the time to double down.”