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December 7, 2018

Volume 40, Number 35

Its common these days for glowing national articles to be written about Austin.  So when an opinion piece in a respected national publication criticizes actions by Austin, you need to be aware of what is being said.  Within the past week, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) wrote the City of Austin risks becoming the San Francisco of the South an expensive playground for wealthy progressives.”  And it cited examples.

 “It would be hard to find a better example of left-wing naiveite in municipal affairs than what transpired here in November,” wrote the WSJ in its opening sentence.  “Voters in the Lone Star State’s progressive bastion overwhelmingly approved a $925 billion bond package, but rejected a simple ballot initiative for an independent audit of city spending.” “The defeat of the audit wouldn’t be so galling if the new bonds didn’t so obviously demonstrate the need for an independent review of Austin’s books.  Spending in the Texas capital is more like what one would expect in some profligate California city,” observed with WSJ.  “With this new bond package, Austin has been reduced to using debt to fund parks, public safety and sidewalk repair instead of paying for them out of its $4.1 billion annual budget.”

It cited other examples saying Austin “spends too much of its steadily growing budget on dubious social programs and utopian schemes, financed by a steadily growing tax burden.”  It ticked off actions such as mandatory paid sick leave “with an exemption, of course, for union shops.”  A solar-ready requirement for all new homes and commercial buildings was another example, as was “exorbitantly high development fees that get passed on to consumers.”

The priority of the citys ultraprogressive political establishment is to serve the interests of the wealthy, ultraprogressive white people who fund and elect Austins insular political class,” claims the WSJ opinion piece.  “As living here gets more expensive and as the city’s elite dig in to protect their left-wing haven from disruption and change,” it becomes more like San Francisco.  Tough talk.

Let’s put this in perspective.  Readers of the WSJ can agree or disagree with this assessment.  This is not the point.  The pointthis review of the City of Austins governing policies is now out there for all to see.  In a respected publication. Read More

November 30, 2018

Volume 40, Number 35

Dear ,

As we move into December its time to look ahead to 2019.  This is especially true when you single out real estate an essential portion of the Austin economy.  It also affects personally so many residents of the fast-growing 5-county Austin metro area.  So, what can you expect to happen next year?

The Urban Land Institute and PWC’s Emerging Trends in Real Estate:  2019 gives high marks to the Austin area and to Texas’ major metros.  In fact, Austin ranked #6 in the study, but it took a back seat to #1 Dallas/Fort Worth.  San Antonio ranked #20, while Houston ranked #37 in the review of the nation’s major markets.  These strong Texas cities have a significantly higher percentage of a younger population than the rest of the US.  This means there should be strong labor force growth and productivity.

As a result, demand for housing in these Texas markets is expected to remain strong through 2019,” Dillon Cook, founding partner and COO with Range Realty Advisors (RRA), told GlobeSt.com.  “Also Millennial demand for housing in these Texas markets is expected to continue for many years as a growing share get married, attain higher income levels and have children.”

There’s more to this positive real estate outlook than just demographics.  “Housing demand continues to be fueled by relatively low interest rates, low unemployment and continued economic growth,” Cook pointed out.  And Austin is among the nation’s leaders in these categories.

Yeah, but, what goes up must come down, right?  This may be true, but it’s all relative.  Range Realty Advisors points out “the ups and downs of economic cycles can vary substantially globally, regionally and by state.”  Cook says it is entirely possible the next nationwide economic downturn will look and feel very different in Texas compared to other states. In previous economic downturns, there have been several causal factors – rampant speculative development for oneIn Austin most speculative real estate development is leased/sold as soon as its finished.  There are other national and international factors that are not currently apparent.  Conclusion:  “Add to this strong economic and job growth, high level of consumer confidence and business investment, and many believe Texas will continue to be a magnet for real estate investors and developers for years to come,” notes RRA. Read More

November 23, 2018

Volume 40, Number 34

While enjoying leftovers from the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, its time to look ahead at a special Austin City Council runoff election that will likely be largely overlooked.  Even though Council positions are theoretically non-partisan candidates are not listed by political affiliation Council District 8 has taken on an aggressively partisan Dem vs Repub tone.

It’s a special runoff election December 11, 2018 for three seats on the Austin City Council.  No candidate got 50+% of the vote November 6, 2018.  So the top two vote-getters for District 1, District 3 and District 8 must face voters once again.  Here’s how it breaks down.

District 1 features newcomers Natasha Harper-Madison against Mariana Salazar.  District 3 is a re-match of a family affair:  incumbent Pio Renteria is in the runoff with his sister, Susana Almanza.  Neither of these contests has partisan overtones.  No matter who is elected, these districts will continue to be represented by another left-leaning Council member.

The change in tone is for the District 8 Council seat.  You’ll recall this is the Council district currently represented by Ellen Troxclair.  An avowed conservative, Troxclair – who was frequently on the short end of 10-1 votes – decided not to seek re-election.

The runoff for this seat pits Paige Ellis against Frank Ward.  Why do we say this is a highly-partisan contest?  The Travis County Democratic Party endorsed Ellis.  And described the contest this way:  “Her opponent Frank Ward is a Trump-Republican and former staffer for the Republican National Committee endorsed by outgoing conservative Council Member Ellen Troxclair.”

The Dem Chair says of Ellis:  “Paige is an advocate for Planned Parenthood and believes that Austin can be a leader in gun safety reform … and is running to ensure environmental responsibility.”  The Democratic Party is raising money for Ellis and is block-walking Sunday, November 25th to get out the vote for her.

If Ellis wins, there will be no conservative voice, much less a lone vote, on the Austin City Council.  And, as the Austin American-Statesman noted previously, in the very diverse 11-member City Council, there will be no white, heterosexual, Christian male serving on the law-making body.  Early voting runs from November 29th to December 7th. Read More

November 16, 2018

Volume 40, Number 33

Dear ,

What would a race for President of the United States be that didnt include a Texan or two in the mix?  Remember last time around, the Republican primary featured Ted Cruz and Rick Perry.  It also included Jeb Bush, who was born in Texas and is a family member of the famed two-Bush-presidents-from-Texas.  Now its the Democrats turn.  Lets start with two Texas Democrats in the very early speculation Julian Castro and Beto ORourke.

Castro is the Texan frontrunner as we speak.  The former San Antonio mayor and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary is making the most overt moves to get the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, even saying he is “likely” to run.

What do we mean by “overt” moves?  Just last week Castro had a private meeting in the Alamo City with roughly 20 possible donors to fatten his presidential campaign war chest, as first reported by PoliticoHes also building a paid staff in the early nominating state of Iowa.  And, he’s talked to lawyers about “the mechanics of a possible 2020 presidential campaign.”

Just as important, he crisscrossed the country during the recently-concluded midterm elections campaigning for Democratic candidates.  This was a significant effort to build support, as his Opportunity First PAC endorsed (meaning, gave money) to 89 Democrats.  He’s visited early primary states like New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, as well as Arizona and Florida.  He was an early (2017) endorser of Andrew Gillum’s Florida campaign for governor.

And, right now, he is the only Hispanic to privately make major presidential moves.  Not coincidentally, Castro is raising money and speaking in Hispanic-heavy California late this week.

Ironically, O’Rourke while not making anywhere near the national moves as Castro, is more top-of-the-mind with his fellow Democrats.  He is a media darling, as well as an inspiration for liberal Democrats – with many speculating about a presidential run for him. The El Paso Congressmans term ends in January.  So he has a national platform – if he decides to use it – as Dem leaders urge him to seek the presidency. His mega-financed race against Cruz raised his profile.  Check the next item for stats about O’Rourke’s campaign. Read More

November 9, 2018

Volume 40, Number 32

Austins reputation as a home for heavyweight companies of the future is well-recognized and well-deserved.  After all, when you start calling the roll of Austin majors Dell, Google, Apple, Facebook, Indeed, 3M, etc., its hard to know where to stop.  The list is long and impressive.  But what about smaller enterprises that could be the biggies of the future?  Where does Austin stand as the site for startups?  New information late this week:  startups accounted for a larger share of businesses in Austin than in nearly all major US metros in 2016.

Young companies account for a larger share of businesses in Austin than in nearly all other major US metros.  So, it’s important to note that for the first time, the Survey of Business Owners compiled as part of USCensus Bureau data, included data regarding the number of years a firm has been in business.

Here’s how the numbers break out.  Take the newbies, those firms with less than 2 years in businessAustin with 4,444 companies, or 11.6% of all employer firms, ranks #3 in the nation, behind #1 Las Vegas and #2, Orlando.

Those Austin companies that have been in business a little longer, but less than four years, break out this way:  10,807 Austin businesses, or 28.1% of employer firms, place Austin at #2 in the nation, behind #1 Las Vegas.

And the oldies?  Austin firms in business less than six years15,077 Austin businesses, or 39.3% of firms, place Austin at #2 in the nation, behind #1 Las Vegas.

How did other major Texas metros fare in this review of the 50 largest metros in the US, in business less than 6 years?  The Dallas-Ft. Worth metro was 5th in the nation, Houston was ranked #10 and the San Antonio metro was 13th in the US.

In the past, Austin has been noted as a good place to start a company.  After all, Dell started in a UTAustin dorm room.  But, this is the first report putting precise numbers to the entrepreneurial environment in this area.  This late report came to us from the Austin Chambers VP/Research Beverly Kerr.  Her analysis goes much deeper by the way.  For instance, she breaks it down by women-owned firms, minority and veteran entrepreneurs.  And she reports on Austin’s #4 US 2016 ranking for firms receiving significant funding from outside investors. Read More

September 7, 2018

Volume 40, Number 23

For a year now, the Austin area has been considered one of the favored locations for Amazons 50,000-person second headquarters, Amazon HQ2.  Still no public word on when Amazon will announce its next step.  A $5 billion investment in the HQ2 city, spread over 10-20 years, has many cities salivating.  In fact, it has been said a prosperity bomb will be dropped on the ultimate HQ2 city.  How can the Austin area prepare for such an event?

Austin’s proposal has not been made public, but several cities have revealed proposals that have incentives valued up to a billion dollars.  Hey, they probably figure, if we invest a billion dollars for a $5 billion returnits worth it.  Don’t know if this was their logic. But it emphatically emphasizes the humongous aspect of Amazon HQ2.  Amazon estimates it generated $38 billion in economic activity in its home base of Seattle between 2010 and 2016.  Okay, so HQ2 will be big.  Really big.

Washington, DC-based think tank Brookings Institution in a new study examined how the city that wins Amazon HQ2 could ensure its arrival does not rapidly drive up housing costs – an important element in the Austin area economy.

Brooking’s Joseph Parilla said this “should include not only stimulating new market-rate development through zoning, but also setting aside some of the tax revenue generated by Amazon to fund and preserve affordable housing.”

Other than housing, Parilla said Amazon should invest in local business initiatives, such as a startup accelerator and should source services and goods from resident suppliers.  And, the new HQ2 city should prepare existing residents to take advantage of employment opportunities created by Amazon.  In other words, the “diversity of the entire region” should be brought into play in business planning around Amazon.

Back to housing for a moment.  In Amazons HQ1 city, Seattle, the cost of housing has outpaced wage gains.  While the income of families at the 20th percentile of the earnings distribution grew by 14% between 2014 and 2016, rents increased at 19%, according to Zillow.  Sound familiar?  If Austin is selected for HQ2, Amazon will be on familiar territory and should work with Austin to alter such an imbalance. Read More

April 20, 2018

April 20, 2018:  Volume 40, Number 3

Dear ,

What if the Russians (or other enemy entity”) hacked into your power supply, Austin Energy?  How about the nuclear power plant that supplies a portion of Austins electricity?  Or the source of your water supply, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA)?  In other words, what if your access to water and/or electricity is cut off?  This was the subject of a recent FBI/Homeland Security report on Russian hacking.

The Department of Energy has begun the task of creating an office of cybersecurity and emergency response.  “But at the local level, it will be up to officials to take whatever steps are needed to prevent hacking attacks,” says Mary Scott Nabers, CEO of Austin-based Strategic Partnerships.  “The possibility of future impacts is enormous.”

“Our power plants, nuclear generators and water infrastructure are all outdated and vulnerable,” Nabors noted.  “It would not be that difficult for unsophisticated hackers to shut down our electric grids or our water plants.  It’s even plausible to think that hackers could reroute our airline flights.”

It’s not just foreign powers that pose direct hacking problems.  “To gain access to something significant like a power plant, hackers usually first attack smaller, less secure networks like firms that make parts for generators or sell software to power plants,” observed Nabors.  “Virus and malicious code usually enters a network via a third party breach.”

Nabors acknowledged local entities are already investing in safeguards.  But, she said “that will escalate significantly in the near future.”  It is estimated that US utilities will spend more than $7 billion on grid cybersecurity by 2020.

The reason for this increased effort:  “between 2010 and 2014, hackers infiltrated the US Department of Energy’s networks 150 times.”  And, 68% of oil and gas companies have experienced at least one compromise over the past 12 months. Nabors points out federal funding sources are available for local cyber security:  “The threats are significant and funding and assistance are available.  It seems important for state and local officials to avail themselves of all assistance possible.”  She also admitted it will be difficult, as the federal government is large, complicated and bureaucratic. Read More

April 13, 2018

Volume 40, Number 2

Dont know if you noticed, but the #2 person in line to become US president spent a lot of time in Austin this past week while the USCongress was in recess.  House Speaker Paul Ryan also hit other cities to preach the administration gospel and raise money.  But, he also participated in a 3-day Republican retreat in Austin, discussing politics and policyAll this was before Ryan announced Wednesday he was retiring at the end of his term in Congress.

According to the Texas Tribune (TT), Ryan has just concluded a swing through Texas that included a retreat in Austin with about 100 GOP donors.  Additionally he held fundraisers in Dallas, San Antonio and Corpus Christi.  Along the way, he was promoting new legislation like last year’s sweeping tax overhaul.

The Wisconsin Republican raised almost $4 million with these events – quite a haul.  Where did the money go?  It went to “Team Ryan” -- a joint fundraising committee composed of Speaker Ryan and other Republicans running for Congress, reports TT.

Three Texas GOP Congressmen have been publicly targeted for defeat by the Democrats – Will Hurd from Helotes, John Culberson from Houston and Pete Sessions in Dallas.  Some of this money will go to help their re-election.

Make no mistake.  There were a lot of Republican heavy-hitters here in Austin, both elected and powerbrokers.  The focus was on elections later this year.  It is somewhat interesting Austin was chosen for this politically-oriented retreat.  After all, Austin leans heavily democratic.  (Apparently, the attractions of our fair city appeal to a wide political spectrum.)

Ryans retreat and fundraisers were private affairs, but he did make a few public appearances, including stopping by the Austin Police Department to thank local officers for their response to the deadly bombings last month.  This rare, high-level GOP concentration in Austin – albeit briefly -- brings to mind the enthusiasm powering local Democrats.  As we mentioned two weeks ago, there are three Democratic Party runoffs May 22nd that will determine which candidate will run against local GOP Congressmen Michael McCaul and Roger Williams, as well as, who will contend for the seat left vacant by Lamar Smith, who decided not to seek re-election. Read More

March 30, 2018

Volume 39, Number 50

It hasnt come close to peaking yet, but a coupla races for Congress in Central Texas will soon start coming into focus in the public eye.  Its only a handful because the next election is a runoff.  It will be held May 22ndThis will determine the Dem vs GOP contests to ultimately select the final winner in the General Election contest in November.

The most wide-open runoff race will be for the District 21 Congressional seat that extends from parts of Austin to parts of San Antonio.  Lamar Smith decided not to run for reelection.  One reason was, under House rules, he is term-limited and would not be able to keep his powerful committee chairmanship even if he were re-elected. So what does the race to replace him look like now that the Dems and GOPers both have runoffs to select their party nominee?

First the Democrats.  Two candidates will be on the May 22nd ballot – Joseph Kopser and Mary Street Wilson.  They emerged from a crowded field, but neither, obviously, got 50+% of the vote to avoid a runoff.

The same is true for the Republicans. Matt McCall and Chip Roy will be going head-to-head for the GOP nomination.  The primary contest was notable in that USenator Ted Cruz went all-in for Roy, his former chief of staff.

Two Democrats will be scrambling for the opportunity to challenge District 10 Congressman Michael McCaul, who is the high profile chair of the USHouse Homeland Security Committee.  They are Mike Siegel and Tawana Walter-Cadien.  This district includes all of Austin, and runs east through several conservative counties to the edge of Houston.

Another congressional district race, that encompasses a portion of Austin and runs all the way north to the edge of Fort Worth, has two Democrats vying for the chance to challenge incumbent Roger WilliamsJulie Oliver and Chris Perri emerged from a crowded field of Dems to make the runoff.

These are the only Congressional runoffs in Central Texas.  But, there are others in Texas that bear watching if you’re interested in the balance between Democrats and Republicans in the USHouse, that is now heavily Republican.  Of particular note is District 23, which the Dems have targeted nationally.  They want to oust GOP Will Hurd, an African American in heavily Hispanic West Texas, where Gina Ortiz Jones is facing Rick Trevino in a runoff.  Stay tuned. Read More

March 2, 2018

Volume 39, Number 46

So far, nearly 1,300 City of Austin employees during a six month period have earned paid time off from work because they have agreed to cut down on solo driving.  They are paid with your tax dollars while they are taking the earned time off.  In other words, the City is offering strong incentives to employees if they log a commute using a bicycle, or walk, participate in a carpool or vanpool, take transit, or telework.  The goal:  get more cars off Austin roadways.

Implementation of the program is structured in a way that a bureaucrat can love.  First of all, for a city employee to participate in the commuter incentives program each employee is given a demonstration video explaining how to participate in the program.  Here is a brief summary of how it is set up so you can see why a video is needed to bring the city employee up to speed (so to speak).

Participating employees accrue points when they log a commute using an approved, sustainable alternative to solo driving” – bicycle, walk, carpool, vanpool, transit, telework.  There is a two point per day maximum.

Then, when employees reach a specified point threshold, they are rewarded with four hours of paid time off.  But it doesn’t stop there.

Participants are permitted to continue accruing points beyond the minimum threshold.  This means they can earn even longer periods of paid leave in four-hour increments.  Yeah, but, how does the City keep track of all this?

Well, hiring an outside contractor to trace each employee’s activity, of course.  The firm called RideAmigos is running a special administrative leave commuter program that provides automatic tracking for participants on what it calls a “transportation demand management platform.”  Claiming “success,” it looks as if this program will continue. While on the topic of non-auto travel on city streets, the city is now starting to spend about $20 million on bicycle improvements approved by voters in 2016.  One element under consideration by the Austin Transportation Department is the installation of buttons on city streets to delineate bike lanes.  Also called “tortoise shells,” they are white-cake-pan-shaped and will be attached by adhesives.  They cost about $2 to $4 per foot.  This is obviously a lower cost than precast concrete barriers.  But there is still opposition to their usage. Read More