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Paid Sick Time Delay Is the City of San Antonio’s Latest Grand Bargain with Business Groups 

click to enlarge Protestors lower the boom on the city council dais during Thursday's meeting. - TWITTER / @MOVE_TEXAS
  • Twitter / @MOVE_texas
  • Protestors lower the boom on the city council dais during Thursday's meeting.
Editor’s Note: The following is City Scrapes, a column of opinion and analysis.

San Antonio is waiting on the sick leave ordinance. Yet again.

Just to replay the story: in June 2018, the Texas Organizing Project and MOVE Texas presented city council with almost 145,000 signatures on petitions to put a mandatory paid sick leave proposal on the ballot last November. That was, of course, the same election where the charter changes pressed by the city’s fire union would be on the ballot. So rather than put the sick leave measure on the ballot, where it might attract support from voters who would also back the firefighters’ charter revisions, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and council cynically adopted the sick leave measure by ordinance last August.

The council’s vote on paid sick leave neatly kept the issue off the ballot. But our elected officials also recognized the substantial opposition to the sick leave proposal from local business interests and chambers of commerce. They assumed, as did many observers, that the state legislature would pass legislation blocking the sick leave requirement, or that the courts would find it in violation of state law on the minimum wage.

A year ago, we were supposed to get paid sick leave. The state legislature never intervened. But now, the city has stalled once again, with the argument from the city attorney that the ordinance needs to be negotiated and improved. Nirenberg has professed his backing for paid sick leave. Yet he effectively did nothing to halt the delay. For some observers, it’s a failure of mayoral leadership. And Nirenberg often appears to come up short compared to predecessors Henry Cisneros (Sea World! Alamodome!), Phil Hardberger (Main Plaza! Hardberger Park!) and Julian Castro (Pre-K4SA!).

Nirenberg’s climate action effort increasingly resembles a plan for climate inaction, with lots of nice-sounding rhetoric and no real effort to deal with the continuing development sprawl that leads to more driving and greater emissions. Indeed, just a few months ago, our mayor was in Washington, pleading for federal dollars to widen I-35 with the argument that without more highway funds, growth might be stifled in “America’s next great metropolis.”

So, let’s be real about what’s going on. For decades, this community has operated on the basis of a grand bargain. There could be modest improvements in some local public policies — think Pre-K — as long as two central tenets demanded by San Antonio’s business leadership were sustained: continuing support for outlying growth (and the land speculation and development that has made some locals wealthy) and low wages (and poor benefits) for the working population.

There have been some occasional advances. The COPS/Metro organization has successfully pressed for higher base wages for city and county employees. And on the environmental front, we do have a loophole-filled tree ordinance and a very nice creekway system. Yet all too often, local business appears to dictate the limits of public policy, whether it’s over bargaining with the police and fire unions, the content of the city’s capital improvement program, spending on the Alamodome (and the persistent search for an NFL team) or neatly shifting the city’s property tax revenues to favor public building projects over basic city services.

What we really need now is a city council with some backbone and recognition of basic fairness to working people — and the ability to actually hear what almost 150,000 residents have asked for. We are not going to be “America’s next great metropolis” with a low-wage and low-benefits workforce and mile after mile of spread-out, low-density subdivisions, nearly identical strip shopping centers and convenience stores.

Heywood Sanders is a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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