Austin City Council members have to put up with going through airport security, but at least they get to park free on the way to the terminal.
Council members are not alone in this, however. The City of Austin grants free airport parking - even in the $18-a-night garage - to more than 200 state and local officials and their spouses, including the governor and six other statewide elected officials, every member of the Legislature, the Texas secretary of state and members of both of Texas' highest courts. The council and Austin City Manager Toby Futrell likewise park free at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, but their spouses don't have the privilege.
The policy, at least as it relates to the Legislature, goes back more than a decade. Asked how much revenue the city might have forgiven over the years, airport spokesman Jim Halbrook said the city has never added it up or done any sort of audit, and that compiling the figures might takes weeks. City Council members and mayor-turned-state-senator Kirk Watson defend the giveaways for state officials as both good politics and good manners.
"Relationships are important," said Watson, a Democrat and freshman senator who during his days as mayor pushed to repair the city's image with the Legislature and quell so-called Austin-bashing by its 181 members. "But I don't think that's your ultimate goal. We have a special benefit as the capital city, and a corresponding special responsibility."
Austin Mayor Will Wynn, in letters to legislators and the statewide officials earlier this month, outlined a list of benefits the city extends to the officials. Aside from the free airport parking - which the city's policy confines to traveling on state business but has no way of policing - the legislators and statewide officials (and their spouses) can park free at City of Austin parking meters, swim for nothing at city pools and have their green fees waived at city golf courses.
Although Wynn signed the letter to legislators, Halbrook said the decision to offer the benefits was made by city staff and did not come before the council for a vote. Official privileges have been in the news in recent days, with reports that Austin City Council Member Jennifer Kim asked that as a council member she be allowed to get through airport security without first obtaining an airline boarding pass.
It's not clear just what benefit, if any, the city derives from dispensing these favors. The gratis airport parking goes back at least to January 1995, when former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin made a small show on the Senate floor of giving his colleagues free parking passes for Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. What followed for four months was a thorough thumping of Austin, as the Legislature passed laws to counter actions by the City Council.
"Perhaps it worked better later on," Austin City Council Member Betty Dunkerley said.
The Legislature has backed off Austin-bashing in the last few sessions, though that might have more to do with amended official actions and behavior by Austin officials than with saving lawmakers a few bucks or giving dips in Barton Springs.
"The goodies don't register with me," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who said that, like many legislators who live within two to three hours of Austin, he drives to and from his home and does not use the free airport parking. And Whitmire, like all legislators, has free parking on the Capitol grounds.
"A working relationship is what matters," Whitmire said.
Tom "Smitty" Smith, executive director of Public Citizen's Texas office, said the favors are relics from Austin's dark days as a legislative pinata and probably have little or no effect. But he said that if the city is going to stop the practice, it would be better to wait until next session to avoid hurt feelings.
More than 100 state and federal lawmakers, city officials and some other dignitaries have had about $100,000 in parking fees waived at Hobby and Bush Intercontinental airports since 2004.
Mayor Wynn: "Why not explore a sale or a long-term lease that could net us hundreds of millions of dollars upfront that we could put toward any number of community needs, such as transportation?"
Elected leaders will have to reapply for free privilege after abuse concerns.
The county acted because of a question about whether parking perks count as an unlawful gift under a lobbying law passed last year.