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October 19, 2018

Volume 40, Number 29

UTAustin is without doubt one of the Austin areas most important economic engines.  (Years ago we made a speech titled If you want to stop growth in Austinmove the university to Amarillo!”)  So,how is UTAustin doing?  Especially, how does it compare with other peer institutions?  In the world?  How about this UTAustin rose ten points to be ranked #39 worldwide by one of the most respected global rankers of universities.  Impressive.

The editors of Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THEWUR) singled out Yale University and UTAustin for making major advances this year.  It attributed UTAustin’s leap to “significant increases in its institutional income and research volume.”  The ranking relies on a combination of reputation surveys and quantitative metrics in five areas:  teaching, research, research citations, international outlook and industry income.

It’s difficult to get detailed information on the specifics underlying THEWUR’s ranking but, according to UTAustin, it “correlates with recent expansions in research funding, research reputation and academic reputation.”

UTAustin ExecVP/Provost Maurie McInnis said investments in faculty compensation and interdisciplinary research, combined with the addition of the new Dell Medical School, are enhancing UTAustins research impact.  (If memory serves us correctly, UTAustin’s rankings have suffered in the past because most peer institutions boasted medical schools.)

And UTAustin’s future appears even brighter.  McInnis said “by placing greater emphasis on doctoral programs and strategic hiring, the university aims to become even stronger in years to come.”

Other Texas universities placing in the ranking include Rice University (#86), TexasA&M (#159) and UTDallas(lumped into a range of #201-#250).  UTAustin has done well in several other global rankings:  Center for World University Rankings, #31 … USNews&World Report’s latest ranking of Best Global Universities (#32) and Nature Index’s ranking of #23 in the world for scientific research. As its stature grows nationally and worldwide (and this growth is expected to continue surging), UTAustin enhances much of what makes Austin, Austin. Read More

September 28, 2018

Volume 40, Number 26

Dear ,

Within the next few weeks, Capital Metro is planning to unveil an ambitious, long-term plan to bring high-capacity public transit to the Austin metro area.  What form will it take?  Well, thats what will be revealed.  Project Connect could include any, or all, autonomous buses, light rail, extensive expansion of the existing MetroRapid bus service, or other rapid bus service.  It could be a big deal.  And highly controversial.

Big – because the plan would probably propose a system so large it will provide a major alternative transportation mode attractive to motorists who currently drive city streets.  Controversial – because it will likely result in the removal of car lanes.

Underlying whatever is proposed may be the biggest concern of all:  which routes will the system run along, and importantly, what dedicated right of way will be needed?  Remember Capital Metro doesn’t have jurisdiction over roads their vehicles use.  In other words, CapMetro can’t dictate what happens to acquire needed right-of-way.  These roads either belong to the city, county or state.

Why right-of-wayWithout it, buses simply line up in the same slog cars get bogged down in.  Okay, what about light rail?  Well, in most cases, you would probably convert vehicle lanes to rail lanes.  You would likely also build boarding platforms in the middle of roadways.  Again, right of way problems.

For a transformative transit system to be successfully instituted, you will need leaders of differing governmental entities heavily involved, making serious decisions – and, in some cases, probably angering some of their constituents.  Complicated?  Oh, yeah.

And cost?  No estimate yet.  But local leaders like to look to Seattle and other similar cities for examples.  Seattle committed several billion dollars to convert a major downtown artery entirely to bus serviceIt runs as many as 200 buses an hour on the roadway.  It worked.  Seattle has seen a major reduction in car use.  But, at what price in dollars and to auto mobility?

What can you expect?  First of all, this is – as we said – ambitious planning and it is very, very long-term.  CapMetro will likely take the first public step within a few weeks to begin a more extensive planning and coordination effort.  The implications are huge.  Stay tuned. Read More

September 14, 2018

Volume 40, Number 24

The Texas economy especially as it impacts the Austin area is so strong it has triggered an action not taken in 30 years.  State government, so important in Austin, is benefitting significantly from what is happening throughout the state not to mention the impact of the red-hot Austin economy.  All this is due to better-than-expected economic and revenue growth around Texas.

We’ve long maintained the Austin area is uniquely positioned economically.  Steady government paychecks provide a solid underpinning for the area.  In general, these jobs are not subject to ups-and-downs or twists-and-turns of the private sector.  So, add to this, the Silicon Hills of Austin is right now riding the crest of tech-driven private sector job growth, that is the envy of the rest of the nation.

Consider this:  the sky-rocketing Austin private sector tech economy is set to get a rocket-boost from normally-staid state government.  What?  How’s this?  The Texas Legislature that sets budget parameters for the many state agencies in Austin doesn’t even meet for almost four months.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, by law, is the state official who decides money guidelines the legislature must follow.  He says to legislators “this is how much money you will have to spend during the next two years of the biennium and you cant spend any more than that.”  Last October, he issued his forecast for fiscal year 2019.

For the first time other than a legislative session in 30 years, the State Comptroller has increased his certified revenue estimate he made last October.  And it was a big increase.  Remember, the Texas Legislature meets only once every two years for 140 days.  So its a big deal for setting a two-year budget.

His reason for saying state agencies will have more money to spend starting in 2019 than earlier predicted are several fold:  sales tax revenue is up 10.5% over FY 2017 … oil/gas natural gas production tax revenue is up 56.1% … general revenue-related revenue, up 9.3%, etc.

The legislature will have more money to dole out.  If state agencies get bigger bucks, it will mean bigger paychecks circulating through the Austin economy.  A nice future boost. Read More

August 31, 2018

Volume 40, Number 22

Dear ,

The National Science Foundation announced this week that UTAustin will receive a $60 million grant to build one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world.  And, it will be the fastest of any university in the nation.  This moves UTAustin to the very top in the field.  And while vastly important for academic disciplines at UTAustin, the recognition also reinforces Austins overall tech economySo, how did UTAustin reach this pinnacle?  It got a rocket boost 35 years ago when it did something it had never done before, nor since.

First a little background:  In 1983, Microelectronics and Computer Technology Company (MCC) was a brand-new consortium composed of 15 of the US’s top tech companies (it later grew to 21).  MCC’s task was to counter Japanese dominance in the tech field, which was supported/funded by its government.  In other words, Japanese companies were beating the butts off US companies that didn’t have that level of R&D financial backing.

With a wink and a nod to US anti-trust rules (later validated by Congress), these companies ponied up big bucks and committed to offering their best and brightest minds to work together for far-sighted tech research.  Then the companies took the research results and competed in their own way in the world marketplace.  MCC’s site location was a prize sought by 57 cities in 27 states.

Bear with us.  We’re getting to UTAustin’s unprecedented role.  But, first you need to know Austin, Dallas and San Antonio were all part of the initial 57 cities.  Following a presentation led by Texas Governor Mark White and UTAustin Engineering Dean Ben Streetman, Austin became one of the four finalists along with San Diego, Atlanta, and Raleigh-Durham.

Governor White tapped his chief of staff, Pike Powers, to corral the full force of state and Austin resources to successfully lure MCC to Austin.  The governor said “Don’t leave anything to chance, Pike.”  So, a team of mostly volunteers collaborated to prepare a precedent-breaking proposal that involved UTAustin.

Keep in mind, at the time, the university already enjoyed a solid reputation in computer science and electrical engineering.  But, in 1983 it decided to make a quantum leap, and invest heavily and uniquely (with the help of benefactors) to support the bid to attract MCC to Austin.  UTAustins commitment raised Austins proposal above all others.  Check the next item for how UTAustin helped itself, while it helped the city and the state. Read More

August 17, 2018

Volume 40, Number 20

Mexico is the most important international trading partner for Texas by far.  Austin also benefitsRelations recently have been a bit dicey, especially with the NAFTA trade agreement between Canada, Mexico and the US under review.  “Review is a soft word.  Soon NAFTA that went into effect in 1994 -- may no longer resemble its former self.  With a newly-elected president of Mexico starting a 6-year term December 1, 2018, lets examine what may happen.

This is not the stuff of everyday headlines.  In fact, many find a discussion of international trade pretty boring.  But this is very important for the future growth of the Austin area and the Texas state economy.  Take Texas first.  Texas has been the nations top exporting state for 14 years in a rowAnd Mexico, by far, is the top country for Texas exports -- $97 billion to 2nd place Canada’s around $30 billion in 2017.  All other nations are back in the pack.

Austin takes a big chunk of this dynamic export business.  In fact, the Austin-Round Rock area is the 26th largest exporter region in all of the US.  And it is growing.  Exports grew 30% over a 10-year period from 2006 to 2016.  The metro area exports approximately $10 billion in goods and services a year.  More than 2,000 businesses in the Austin metro exported $540 million worth of merchandise to Mexico in 2016.

So what could impact this significant hunk of our economy?  First of all, President Donald Trump has long maintained the US gets the short end of the stick in NAFTA saying the trade agreement favors Mexico and Canada.  He even called for abolition of NAFTA (which stands for North American Free Trade Agreement).

Now Trump is playing Mexico against Canada, saying the US might end up with two agreements, a different one for each nation.  Hes saying negotiations with Mexico started again July 26th and are coming along nicely.” But talks with Canada are on hold.  Trump is even praising Mexico’s left-leaning president.

So, what is likely to happen?  Former USAmbassador to Mexico Tony Garza (who lives and works in Austin and Mexico City) said the new Mexican president has his own man sitting in on current negotiations.  “The new administrations embrace of the talks has sparked renewed optimism for a quick finish, with some negotiators even pointing to completion by the end of August,” said Garza.  Stay tuned. Read More

July 20, 2018

Volume 40, Number 16

The UTSystem should be nearing the end of its search to replace retired Chancellor Bill McRaven.  There is no stated deadline and former UTAustin President Larry Faulkner is a very capable interim replacement.  But, the Texas Legislature convenes in Austin in less than six months and a new Chancellor needs time to get up-to-speed on critical issues.  One question:  what should the Board of Regents pay to attract a world-class caliber candidate?  Do the Texas Aggies hold the key to that answer?

No doubt about it, the job of UTSystem Chancellor is a tough one, overseeing as CEO 8 academic institutions (including UTAustin) and 6 health institutions that include 6 medical schools, 2 dental schools and 8 nursing schools, among other professional programs.  Consider this:  The UTSystem confers more than one-third of the states undergraduate degrees and educates over half of the states healthcare professionals.  This is a major responsibility.  And, ancillary to this, the newly-named Chancellor will become an influential citizen of Austin.

So, what should the Regent’s search committee pay to get someone of that caliber?  Start off thinking of an amount north of a million dollars a year.  The Chronicle of Higher Education released a 2016-2917 national salary survey this week.  TexasA&MSystem Chancellor John Sharps salary was among the nations highest at $1.29 million for acting as CEO of 11 institutions.

Even the president of the single campus TexasA&MUniversity in College Station, Michael Young, pulls down a $1 million annual salary.  By the way, UTAustin president Greg Fenves turned down a million dollar salary offer when he was hired in 2015 and now makes $762,220.

The precedent has already been set.  When he retired as UTSystem Chancellor earlier this year, McRaven earned just more than $1.5 million in combined base pay, bonuses and other financial perks during the 2017 fiscal year.

The Board of Regents will hire the new Chancellor at whatever salary it takes to attract its chosen candidate.  The search committee is headed by current Regents Chair and Vice Chair Sara Martinez Tucker and Jeffrey Hildebrand.  They are joined by two former chairs, Don Evans and James Huffines and a former vice chair, Paul Foster. Read More

July 13, 2018

Volume 40, Number 15

Its difficult to keep tabs on the many organizations, boards and commissions that are actively working, one way or another, to determine what Austin is and will be in the future.  But two relatively new groups, composed of some of this citys most notable heavyweights, deserve your attention.  They could have a huge impact on one of the Austin areas most promising future economic underpinnings healthcare research and start-ups.

It’s understandable they are not all that well-known yet.  Let’s look at the first one, created last year.  And it is growing as we speak.  Its a non-profit organization Capital City Innovation (CCI).  Its purpose is to help coordinate the creation of a healthcare innovation district associated with UTAustin’s Dell Medical School (DellMed).  The makeup of CCIs Board of Trustees is what gives CCI its weight and significance.  Consider these influential board members:

Clay Johnston, dean of DellMed … Greg Hartman, president/Academic and External Affairs, Seton Healthcare Network/Ascension Texas … Kerry Hall, Austin Region president of Texas Capital Bank and former chair of the Austin Chamber’s economic development entity, Opportunity Austin … Stephanie McDonald, chief of staff at Central Health … Dewitt Peart, president/CEO, Downtown Austin Alliance.  Ex officio members are Austin mayor Steve Adler and Travis County judge Sarah Eckhardt.

The second organization is also a non-profit, created this year to speed-up revenue generation for expansion of ambitious healthcare development plans related to DellMed.  Commercial real estate powerhouse Sandy Gottesman formed 2033 LP, a limited partnership that will generate millions of dollars for Central Health, the local public agency that connects Travis County low income residents to quality health care.

Gottesmans 2033 LP will serve as UTAustins development partner in the redevelopment of the multi-acre campus area to support DellMed’s clinical and research operations.  (Gottesman, by the way, after graduation from UTAustin, cut his civic/business teeth as young aide to Austin civic titan Lowell Lebermann, before becoming super successful in Austin’s commercial real estate scene.)

Check the next item for a discussion of the problems that led to this unusual move this week. Read More

June 15, 2018

Volume 40, Number 11

All you have to do is check the skyline to know that downtown Austin is undergoing amazing change.  But, theres more to this change than skyscrapers.  The Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) points out that within the last few years investments have also been made in parks and green spaces, a new Central Library, a flood diversion tunnel, roadways and transit planning, and a state-of-the-art teaching hospital.  But, what does DAA envision for the future?

DAA took a long-term view toward downtown’s future.  Long-term?  Yeah, they referenced 2039, when Austin will be 200 years old.  DAA went through an extensive process to arrive at a vision.  “We engaged 3,000 people in 75 ZIP codes, using surveys, focus groups, interviews and events to learn their aspirations for downtown,” said Mike Kennedy, Chair of the Downtown Austin Vision Steering Committee.

“The Downtown Austin Vision is the north star to guide the future of downtown toward the communitys values and aspirations for a thriving, welcoming, vibrant and connected downtown,” reads the vision report.  It also calls it “the downtown you will always love.”

Lofty words.  And its priorities seem to cover all the bases, under four headings:  Thriving CenterWelcoming PlacesGrowing Neighborhoods … and Leading Mobility.  All worthy subjects.  But referenced in general terms, with few specifics.

There is some precise language, without detail.  Such as:  “provide a variety of options for people to get to and from downtown, including a robust transit network in central Austin.”  See what we mean.  No mention of what this would look like.  Or “create extremely viable and walkable streets.”

Other phrases:  improve the experience and availability of parking in downtown while planning smartly for the future position downtown for a successful retail futurebroadly address the needs of people experiencing homelessness, and the associated impactsmake downtown a family-friendly place to live and visit. To be fair, this “vision” is not intended to be a blueprint for construction.  All bases seem to be touched.  But, the devil is in the details.  And the details will be debated ad nauseum.  Stay tuned. Read More

June 1, 2018

Volume 40, Number 9

The sometimes-bitter, push-pull battle between public schools and charter schools is ongoing in Austin and around the state.  South of here, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, a public school district is considering a plan that could give its campuses more flexibility and funding by adopting some charter school-like policies.  This is one to watch.

Immediately after our deadline this week, the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (PSJA) public school district teachers will vote on a plan that will create an Innovative Management Organization, or IMO.  If adopted, PSJA superintendent Daniel King says the IMO approach could result in additional funding for the school district.

Stay with me now.  The non-profit IMO will operate as an independent contractor to PSJA and will be responsible for delivering services to the district.  King calls this a way to merge the benefits of having charter status with the current public school system.  How will it work?

To achieve a middle ground, King proposes holding the IMO responsible not for fully running the campus, but for creating methods in which teachers and staff are more involved in the decision-making of their campuses, according to the McAllen Monitor.

The IMO will be overseen by its own governing board and operate as a separate entity from the district.  It will hire its own executive director.  If this plan is implemented district-wide, it would partner with 5-7 IMOs.

It gets complicated and maybe even a bit convoluted.  Space prevents us into delving too deeply into the pros and cons. But King estimates this plan would bring in about $906 additionally per child, per year, and if it is district-wide, it would mean $28 million annually.  This approach is made possible by Senate Bill 1882, passed by the Legislature.

Long a supporter of charter schools and frequent critic of public school operations, the Texas Public Policy Foundation praises this approach, saying not only would it result in more education dollars for the Valley, but it should also provide improved opportunities for teachers and better student outcomes.  It bears watching. Read More

May 4, 2018

Volume 40, Number 5

Yes, median pay at Facebook really is about $240,000 a year.  The median is the midpoint at which half of workers make more and half make less.  $240,000 a year!  Median employee pay at Alphabet (parent company of Google) is $192,274How do we know these eye-popping numbers?  Congress required this disclosure to be made to the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) starting this year as part of the Dodd-Frank law.  The objective was to compare employee salaries to their CEOs compensation to name and shame bad CEO actors.

Since this was the first year for the requirement to take effect, enterprising reporter Kathleen Pender dug up these numbers and published them this past weekend in the San Francisco Chronicle.  The problem is that the law is a bit obscure as to what is included in the compensation.  So Pender reports it is not quite apples-to-apples when you compare companies, even though the companies stand behind their SEC filings for their individual entities.

The employee totals are the most interesting numbers for Austin.  The CEO’s don’t live here.  Employee payrolls are of the utmost interest in the Austin area as these two companies are expanding their local workforces regularly.

But, let’s quickly look at the CEO figures.  Pender reports, “Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg made 32 times what the median Facebook worker earned.  But, Zuckerberg only took a $1 salary last year and got no new stock grants (on top of the $70 billion in Facebook stock he already owns).  So where did the compensation figure come from?  His $8.8 million in compensation last year was mainly for his personal security detail and private aircraft use.

What about Alphabet’s CEO’s compensation?  Pender further reports, “its CEO and co-founder Larry Page took home his usual $1, producing a pay ratio near zero.”  Other CEO’s (not just tech) pull down annual salaries ranging in the eight-digit millions.

For this report, weve selected just a couple of companies with a major, growing presence in Austin.  The law was designed to single out companies perceived to be bad actors.  But, there are other ramifications.  Some “CEOs got pay envy” and sought more bucks.  As for employees, backlashes occurred when disgruntled workers found they were earning less than the median and poaching of employees is starting to occur.  Stay tuned. Read More