Welcome Back, Council: Now Get to Work

After a month-long hiatus, city council comes back to the dais this Thursday to confront two major issues—a sizable budget deficit and a surely divisive vote on a measure that would grant LGBT residents equal protection under a non-discrimination ordinance.

Facing a budget shortfall of $35-$50 million, major financial challenges are ahead for San Antonio city officials. In May, budget director Maria Villagomez and city manger Sheryl Sculley laid out a gloomy forecast for fiscal year 2014 (which begins Oct.1).

They attributed the gap to a few issues. Expenditures—set to grow 3.5 percent—are outpacing revenue, the beginning balance in the municipal checkbook is less than last year, and those fun-to-say but painful to enact national sequestration budget cuts made earlier this year have hit home. Of the $150 million SA receives from the federal government, 17 grants totaling $140 million may be affected by the 2013 sequester. That could take a bite out of human services programs (up to $4 million), public safety (up to $1.5 million) as well as health services (up to $900,000) and neighborhood service programs.

On August 8, Sculley plans to present the proposed budget to council. But that’s not where it ends. After five citywide community input meetings scheduled across the city, two hearings at City Hall chambers and a few repetitive work sessions, council will then adopt the budget on Sept. 12. They better get cracking because by law, they’re required to pass a balanced budget.

While members prioritize spending, they’ll also be settling the fate of a contentious ordinance.

The long-awaited vote to determine whether or not the city will allow LGBT residents to be discriminated against is slated for August. The non-discrimination ordinance, proposed by District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal, prevents gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents from discrimination in hiring and firing, public accommodations, fair housing, city employment, contracts and board appointments by adding sexual orientation and gender identity (and veteran status, regardless of sexual orientation) to the city code. If passed, the measure would put San Antonio on par with other major metro cities in the state like Houston, Dallas and Austin.

Bernal is expected to split the protections, leaving veteran status to one vote and gender identity and sexual orientation in another. Some LGBT activists aren’t thrilled about the split vote, but remain confident the measure they’ve championed is strong enough to win out on its own.

“It concerns us because there are LGBT veterans here and also those serving in the military that would want to be included with the veterans as well,” Dee Dee Belmares, co-chair of the Community Alliance for a Greater San Antonio (CAUSA) told the Current. “But I don’t think [the split vote] will change the protections for LGBT citizens in Texas in the end.”

Bernal hears CAUSA’s trepidation but says the split vote shouldn’t affect the outcome.

“I don’t think it’s fair to force someone to vote against something like veteran status because they have apprehension or their faith directs them to vote against another part. I don’t want to put them in that position,” Bernal said, explaining his rationale.

“And I don’t want to be seen as using one group, veterans as a shoehorn or Trojan horse for another,” he said.

With six votes needed, the odds of its passage could rest on a single member. Aside from Bernal, Mayor Julián Castro, Councilmembers Rey Saldaña, newcomer Shirley Gonzales and Ray Lopez are expected to vote for the NDO, say City Hall watchers. While some can’t quite pin District 8 councilmember Ron Nirenberg on the ordinance, it’s a pretty safe bet the second newcomer will be the deciding vote—Nirenberg told the Current in June, that while he’s hesitant about the details behind a possible Human Rights Commission, he could be depended on for a ‘yes’ vote.

“I agree with the policy and I think in general it’s not even an equality measure for me, I think that’s the misconception and that’s why we have irate people on both sides,” said Nirenberg. “This is a use of public resources issue, this is an economic issue and the philosophy behind it should be that no law-abiding, taxpaying citizen is allowed to be discriminated against when it comes to public resources, which they pay for. That’s the bottom line for me.”

He later added, “If we look at what the ordinance is intended to do, it should be pretty plain vanilla.”

The expected decision follows months of heated protest and passionate testimony from the city’s LGBT community, who consider the protection a basic human right. The NDO has also drawn heavy fire from conservative religious leaders, who have been collectively strategizing behind-the-scenes to kill the ordinance. On a conference call in late June, Pastor Charles Flowers—a vocal opponent of the NDO—compelled the city’s religious leaders to preach against the ordinance from the pulpit and shepherd their herd of church-goers to the ears of council members, “move your people toward City Hall” and make council’s “phone ring off the hook” in July said Flowers. Assuage anti-NDO councilmembers’ fears of bigotry, he recommended, and stick to the talking points outlined in a pre-approved “script.”

Audaciously, Flowers claims the ordinance—by seeking to prevent discrimination against LGBT residents—infringes on his congregation’s religious freedom. They mostly fear the NDO would prevent them from doing business with the City if they decline services to LGBT residents, despite the fact that a religious-exemption provision already exists in the city code. Perhaps skimming past the ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ part in their holy book, Flowers and his local followers seem to simply want to retain their ability to discriminate even outside the confines of their religious organizations.

It looks like they’re bringing legal ammo to the fight. On the conference call, Joe La Rue (with well-funded, Christian-based national legal group Alliance Defending Freedom) said his organization has taken on similar ordinances in other cities.

Directly mentioning councilmember Carlton Soules, Flowers called talks with the District 10 councilmember’s political adviser a “breath of fresh air,” and said the councilmember understands how damaging the ordinance could be.

As for Flowers’ tactics—we’ll see how far they get before imploding from the sheer weight of cognitive dissonance.

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