Category Archives: Politics

HOAs and Grass

So Julie mentioned today that Texas’ drought could potentially last until 2020. Which brings up the question – what are we going to do about HOAs? Most HOAs have structures in place that involve penalties for letting grass brown or die, and provisions against replacing turf with – well, anything.

The CCR (Covenents, Conditions, and Restrictions) that govern neighborhoods generally require a quorum so large to overturn that it is nearly impossible. And that appears to be intentional.

I’m fascinated to see what will happen over the next few years. I know that the state attempted to pass a bill allowing Home Owners to install solar panels against the wishes of their HOA (it failed to pass). It seems there’s potential for massive uproar here.

What do you think? Will there be change or will homeowners just water our drinking water away?

Libertarianism and Totalitarianism

So I’ve been thinking a lot about libertarianism. It’s constantly paraded as “more freedom”. But the more I think about it the more it seems that it appeals to those who’ve become disenchanted with Democracy. It reminds me of the Russians constantly trying to revive the communist party because they felt it worked better. Ultimately if private companies provided all the functions of government, if they built our roads, provided our electricity, and removed our sewage we would have less control. Our democracy would disappear and we would have one or two choices. Perhaps this disillusionment with government and popularity of libertarianism goes hand in hand with our indoor TV culture. It’s too hard to get out and make a difference.

It’s much easier to just have a choice of two horrible Internet providers and pick one. Rather than have the government be the Internet provider and have to make decisions about infrastructure spending democratically, you can pick from one of two equally bad private entities.

The choice becomes easy, but you no longer have any Democratic control. We should strive to make our government more effecient, not to privatize it. Because privatizing it just the first step to corporate totalitarianism.

Conversations with Sabo

So I twittered after reading this chronicle article about my frustration that they interviewed Jason Sabo. He’d led the most unproductive group of parents who kept challenging the numbers, but were unwilling to even acknowledge or talk about any sort of compromise or fix for AISD’s facilities and budget problems. The group was known for labeling any potential solution as “trying to close ‘good’ schools”. So apparently Jason Sabo monitors twitter for mentions of his name:

tthomas48:

@mdahmus: Jason Sabo was one of the worst of that lot. He tried to change the facts rather than fix the problems.

texassabo Jason Sabo

@tthomas48 If “that lot” refers to several hundred concerned parents, thanks for the shout out! Bad #s are not facts. @saveatxschools

tthomas48 Tim Thomas

@texassabo Attacking the numbers was unproductive and rallying parents with unreleastic solutions is not something to be proud of.

@tthomas48 Next time we’ll be sure to embrace bad numbers and “realistic” solutions like closing good schools. #lovethesetwitterdebates

tthomas48 Tim Thomas

@texassabo Yeah no ones suggested any other solutions. Like perhaps redrawing boundaries or tweaking the transfer policies.

tthomas48 Tim Thomas

@texassabo Challlenging “bad” numbers sounds like you’re trying to help, but really you’re just trying to justify closing other’s schools.

@tthomas48 Really? Can’t remember ever thinking or saying that, but thanks anyway for the clarification. #blessthemindreaders

@texassabo Feel free to tell me. What is your goal in having #AISD correct their numbers?

Crickets…

Why I can’t vote for Kathie Tovo

I’ve gotten educated about Kathie Tovo. I’ve read her interviews. I feel like I have a pretty good idea of where she stands on the issues. And I agree with her on quite a lot. But her stance on new development I think is going to stop Austin in its tracks. I know I’ve said Kathie Tovo was anti-development and that her stances will increase housing prices in Austin, pushing even more low-income residents out of the city proper, but I wanted to point out what she has actually said.

“The current TIA [Traffic Impact Analysis] is requirement is not sufficient. As our city becomes more dense, we do need
more accurate TIAs and not just for very large projects, but also for medium-sized ones as well.”

Traffic Impact Analysis is one of the easiest ways that neighborhoods block new development projects. And it’s one of the most meaningless. You can do the traffic impact on Barton Springs for a new building on Barton Springs. But does anyone ever do the traffic impact on Barton Springs for a new housing development in Round Rock? Dense buildings in central Austin may mean more cars, but they could also mean more people taking transit, biking or walking. More sprawl in Round Rock means more cars in Austin, period.

“Just a few of the many policies that would help include greater use of city land for housing, support for nonprofit housing developers, and improving the development process for affordable projects. I also pledge to support additional money for affordable housing in the proposed 2012 bonds.”

Her views on affordable housing is entirely that it can be done with tax dollars. While I will support these bonds if she is elected, I don’t think this is what most people in Austin think of when they think of Austin becoming un-affordable. The big problem is that this could easily lead to hollowing out the center of Austin even more. If the only housing in Austin becomes subsidized for the poor, and housing for the extremely wealthy, then we won’t have made much progress. Central Austinites will still be able to get their tables bused, and their lawns mowed, but there won’t be a creative-class or middle-class in Austin any longer. We have to build new housing in Austin until prices go down. It’s always interesting to me that people bemoan the bust of the eighties. The bust of the eighties was GREAT for the growth of this city. It provided tons of cheap property, made the city very affordable and allowed for explosive growth in the ninties. We need new development and we needed it two decades ago. If you’re not a millionaire you can choose to preserve Austin’s neighborhoods, or you can choose to be able to live in Austin. Pick one.

“continued development pressure and higher rents assure us of future issues as the music scene tries to adapt to the changing real estate market. One needed change would be greater attention to sound design before permits are granted both for venues and for new residential development coming up around our entertainment districts.”

I do think she has a point here, although perhaps not the one she intended. Rich people tend to have a lot of political power and they’re already turning down the volume in our city. In the future they may stop new development of music venues and remodeling of existing ones by putting in sound design requirements that are prohibitively expensive. This isn’t predominantly coming from the apartment dwellers, though. It’s from the neighborhoods where the half-million dollar homes are. KGSR’s “Live at the Grove” was shut down by a homeowner just across the street, who bought into the neighborhood AFTER they started the concert series. It is now “Unplugged at the Grove”. Morrison and Tovo are two of the dominant politicians behind unplugging the music in Austin.

“I believe that the Residential Design and Compatibility Standards have reduced conflict in our central city neighborhoods. Although some feared that passage might stifle building in our city, that concern has not been borne out.”

Residential Design and Compatability Standards is known as the McMansion ordinance. She feels it has not stifled building in our city, yet I don’t drive through Central Austin and see tons of new duplexes, and four-plexes. I assume that most of the people I know who say they would like to live in Central Austin, actually would live there if they could afford it. So I’d say it has definitely stifled development, the only other option is that developers are lazy and uninterested in taking people’s money (which seems unlikely). The only places we’re seeing a lot of new development are in areas that are predominately populated by politically powerless minorities or in areas away from the neighborhoods like Lamar north of Barton Springs. Not to mention that it has created the trend of those bizarro tiny third stories on buildings (start looking for them, it’s an easy way to tell if a remodel happened before or after McMansion).

The Water Treatment Plant

I really think this is just a wedge issue for some suburban voters in far-West Austin and some SOS people. The water treatment plant is being built at 620 and 2222. It’s just a way to pickup votes and is not a particularly interesting debate. Shade voted for it. Since Tovo wasn’t in power she can say she wouldn’t have and pick up a lot of rich West Austinite votes. Considering this interesection already contains a fitness club, HEB, Target and Starbucks, it’s a bit hard to pretend that a Water Treatment Plant is somehow the development in the area that will break the camel’s back.

“The discussion of density must mature as our city grows. The question should be about what type of community we want to live in and what type of businesses, services, and housing we need to make that happen”

I think ultimately Tovo has made that decision. She wants to live in a ultra-wealthy suburban neighborhood in the inner city, without new aparments, but adding the occasional new store and light business condo development. I think that’s how the majority of Austinites would like to live. But ultimately there are too many of us and more moving here all the time. The only way towards a sustainable future is to build lots more new housing to try to lower prices and create the kind of concentration in the city that will allow the walkable, transit-oriented, eco-friendly future so many of us imagine. That’s why I’ll be voting for Randi Shade on June 18th. Join me.

City Council Candidates 2011

Hey did you know we’re having a city election in Austin on May 14th? Did you know early voting starts May 2nd? Fantastic, here’s some info on where to vote.

But are you feeling like you haven’t heard enough ranting from me lately, and would like to know who I’m voting for? Great! Read on… (and don’t forget to read the Austin Posts’ candidate interviews, and decide for yourself)

Place 1

Let’s start with the easy one first. Chris Reilly has been a pretty good council member. I don’t agree with his every decision, but he’s made practical decisions and he’s not anti-growth. You should read about the other candidates in this race. They’re colorful. Especially Norman Jacobson the anti-fluoridation candidate.

Place 3

This one looks to be a race primarily between Randi Shade and Kathie Tovo. Shade has been a decent council member. She’s admitted that she’s made mistakes and she’s still learning, but she seems to have one of those rarest of abilities in politics – the ability to change ones mind. Her answers in interviews show she’s more interested in solving hard problems where multiple people have legitimate competing view points, then providing easy election sound-bites. Her discussion of single member districts in the Austin Post interview I think really highlights how she thinks and weighs issues.

Tovo was running a fairly information free campaign until recently, but has four main points that you’ll find on her website and reiterated in campaign Q&As:

Completing Communities

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p>This is central to her platform, and sounds great. But I can’t for the life of me figure out what it means. The best I can gather she wants to integrate commercial into the fabric of neighborhoods so that you can shop and work where you live. Which sounds great, but she was been a driving force in the Austin Neighborhood Council which has spent the past decade fighting any and all change in our urban neighborhoods. So I can’t really buy that this is more than a sound bite, like loving picket fences, lemonade stands, and american flags. I want to work and shop in my neighborhood. But the city has to let a developer re-zone a residential plot to commercial for that to happen.

Ensuring Affordability

She thinks that the foremost issue affecting Austinites is affordability. And that the economic incentives to lure Formula 1 racing to Austin should have been put towards affordable housing. Which is great. But she hasn’t addressed how exactly that would work. Or if we would raise taxes to provide more affordable housing. Because the subsidizes necessary for the city to directly fund affordable housing and property tax abatements and make any real change would be a large chunk of change. And she also spends a lot of time talking about reducing taxes. So it’s puzzling how this could be achieved.

She was also a proponent of the McMansion ordinance that has not only stopped large family friendly housing from being built within the central core, but has also stopped duplexes, four-plexes and apartment complexes. The Austin Neighborhood Council has repeatedly fought apartment complexes in our central core.

Since getting the McMansion ordinance enacted Tovo has moved into a 2700 square foot home. But I think it’s just classified as a mansion, because it’s old.

She also opposed the development at 801 Barton Springs (the vacant lot across from the Palmer events center that houses snow cone stands in the shadow of two tall buildings). Interestingly enough she does still own a rental property in Bouldin Creek that has winter views of downtown. Views that would potentially be obscured by a building at 801 Barton Springs.

So while she says she’s for affordability, her actions seem to be the actions one would expect from those trying preserve the value of their property, over a concern for housing the poor.

Respecting Citizens and Saving Schools

That’s technically two, but seriously? One of those is what everyone’s jumping on this season because of the outrage over the fact that city hall was using email and walking decisions to make decisions outside of public view. But why should we trust Tovo? She’s been a longtime member of the Bouldin and Austin Neighborhood council who are well known for making obtuse decisions outside the purview of public scrutiny. And Saving Schools? Considering the City Council has zero authority in that area, I’d say that’s a pretty strong campaign slogan, with absolutely nothing behind it.

Place 4

This one is a tossup for me. Morrison absolutely needs to go, and it’s unlikely to happen. She along with Tovo are part of the Austin Neighborhood Council crowd. They’re pretty popular and they’ve managed their message about preserving Austin’s character quite well. The problem is that realistically unless you’ve been here longer than Morrison, you’re actually part of the threat to Austin’s character.

During her short time in office she’s been a huge threat to the Austin music community in attempting to shut down outdoor music in favor of the neighborhoods. She’s been against pretty much all new development unless it’s a development by her cohort Brian Rodgers (who basically buys blighted strip malls and makes them prettier, but only slightly more pedestrian friendly). And she’s been a proponent of the historical tax breaks which led approximately 100 of her richest West Austin neighbors to apply for tax breaks in a single year. Costing millions in tax revenue when the city and school district need it most.

Toby Ryan and Eric Rangel are both young and inexperienced. I’m favoring Ryan because he has better name recognition and has a clear plan for helping Austin’s music scene.

So that’s it. My ranting’s over. What do you think I’ve got wrong (or right) here?

Putting the house on the market?

So I’ve been considering putting our house on the market. If I wasn’t a ridiculous optimist it would be right now. Why you ask?

Because I believe Texas is poised for a spectacular financial implosion. Republicans in Texas have gotten off claiming that times are bad all over, so the budget here is nothing special. Except that our current budget shortfall isn’t the product of a bad economy. In fact Texas’ economy is pretty good. State Comptroller Susan Combs recently released news that sales tax receipts were up. That’s good news. The economy is getting better and better. The problem is that in a year of fantastic growth tax receipts only increase in the millions of dollars. The current budget shortfall is in the billions.

So what went wrong? In 2006 Perry and the Republican legislature passed “property tax relief”. This cut was supposed to chop 33% off of property tax bills. But all it ended up doing was chopping 33% of the states property tax revenue off. After all was said and done this property tax cut actually ended up increasing most citizen’s tax bills by 5%. The Texas legislature meets every two years (bienium). In 2008 when they met the federal government was handing out block grants for all sorts of programs. Perry and the legislature took that money with open arms and used it to plug the massive budget hole. So now we’re in 2010 (yes, yes I know it’s now 2011, but they’ve been messing around with silly bills for a few months now). There’s no more federal stimulous money. And there is a fundamental hole in revenue for the state.

The problem with cutting property tax revenue by 33% is that Texas is not going to get more property. And the value of property does not increase fast enough to cover that 33% hole. So now we have a $25 billion budet shortfall every bienium. Not just this bienium. It’s not going to go away because it’s a fundamental hole in the state budget. Sales tax revenue might go up. Property values might go up. But they’re going to increase in millions. Not billions.

And that’s why I don’t support using the rainy day fund. Because you’re doing the same thing that was done with federal money in 2008. There is a massive fundamental hole in the budget. And patching it with savings is not going to close it in 2012. To put the $25 billion in perspective. Austin ISD’s share of the budget shortfall is the same as the entire state of Wisonsin’s budget shortfall.

don’t see the leadership to close that hole. Without that leadership the state is going to implode. Currently there are 977,600 people on unemployment in Texas. Expectations are that after cutting 189,000 teachers to fix the budget and the rest of the cuts to the public sector, that number will swell by 250,000. Obstensibly many of those teachers are going to leave and look for work in another state, potentially taking a college educated spouse with them. The construction industry will take a hit as Texas can no longer afford to build using bonds. No more new roads. No more new schools or stadiums. Texas’ net migration will slow and eventually turn downward as Texas begins to look less like California with cheap taxes, and more like Michigan.

So, you say, Michigan is still around. There are pockets that are really turning around. Michigan has an income tax. Maybe we should all move there.

I don’t see how there is any future for this state without a politician who is willing to suggest a tax increase that will provide $25 billion in revenue. And I’m not willing to raise my kid in a state where the schools are so poorly funded that there are no electives, languages, or advanced placement classes in the high schools. We’ll see if they can fix it.

But if they can’t I’m moving to a state where polticians and voters can do basic math.

Why we shouldn\’t just sell AISD HQ.

One of the proposals for shoring up Austin\’s budget woes is to sell the AISD offices on West 6th Street. The current market value is $2.6 million. Which sounds great. But we need to be careful with this. If they sell the offices they have to find a lease. Let\’s say that lease is $5500/month. Since Austin taxpayers only get $55 out of every $100 we give to AISD (the rest going to schools in rural Texas), that $5500 lease will actually end up costing Austinites $10000/month. And that\’s an obligation that will exist if we ever get public school funding fixed. And remember there\’s a cap on the total amount that AISD can tax. Do we really want that much money tied up in a rent payment that we didn\’t have before our budget woes? That\’s going into debt to get out of debt. Silliness.

What AISD should do is sell the West 6th street property and buy a cheaper property in North East or South East Austin. They might only be able to put $1 million towards the budget, but the budget will be better for it in the long run.

Asking Republicans For Help

I just sent the following to my mother. I think the only way we\’re going to get this budget crisis fixed is to get Republicans across the state howling about the teacher lay-offs and school closings. Feel free to modify and send to all your relatives living in Republican districts.

I know you have a lot of friends in Republican districts around the state. We\’re trying to get awareness about the state budget problem. Basically there was a property tax cut two years ago that defunded the state to the tune of somewhere between $15 and 28 billion dollars. To put that in perspective, you could close every prison in Texas and get rid of the entire Texas Department of Justice and only save $14 billion.

This is going to lead in massive cuts at schools, hospitals, and prisons. Austin is going to be over $100 million dollars in the hole due to this shortfall. Richardson $55 million. Plano $65 million. The superintendent of Austin ISD last night approved cutting 158 elementary school teaching positions and 174 secondary school positions. Those are normal teachers. AISD is considering closing 9 schools. Houston ISD is considering 66. This is the bone, not the fat. As someone who has a grandkid going into school next year, I\’m sure this concerns you.

So we\’re asking the state to restore previous funding levels through a small raise in the sales tax, and to use the rainy day fund to keep school funding stable until the revenues start coming in. You can find your state representatives here:

http://www.house.state.tx.us/members/find-your-representative/

Why I Support Closing Schools

I know that\’s like saying you\’re a holocaust denier, or have been exposed to extensive experimentation by aliens life forms, but hear me out.

In 2008, the state of Texas allowed for a 1/3 property tax cut. I don\’t fully understand how this worked, but basically no one I know remembers getting anything resembling a large tax cut, and now the state has a massive budget deficit.

How massive? Between $15 and $27 billion. For those who have trouble with numbers that big (like me), GritsForBreakfast (a criminal justice blog) did the math and we could close the entire Texas prison system and not fill in that $15 billion dollar hole. It\’s worth noting that education is 49% of the budget. Quite simply there\’s no way (for a Republican) to balance the budget without cutting education.

So how does this affect Austin? Austin actually has some of the lowest school property taxes in central Texas, but the state caps those taxes at $1.50 per $10000 of property value. Currently Austin is at about $1.20 per $10000. Of that money we get to spend $55 out of every $100 we take in. The rest of the money is sent to the capital to be redistributed to poor school districts. Poor school districts in this case are mostly rural. This is important to keep in mind. Even if Austin were to raise their tax rate to the maximum we would only get to add $55 back to the budget for every $100 we had to fork over.

We are property rich, but our students are poor. Property rich districts like Plano don\’t have all the programs we need like ESL, dual-language, and free lunches. So when the state cuts their funding it doesn\’t create the massive holes it does for AISD.

The CFO of AISD spoke last night and AISD\’s projected budget shortfall depending on how the state deals with cuts is projected to be a minimum of $55 million and could go as high as $120 million. They sent away the facilities task force to come up with $10 million in cuts, which is the proposal they brought back. But people talking about how to make up the difference are conveniently missing the fact that we don\’t need to come up with $10 million to save our schools. We need $55 million. Cutting programs, teacher and administrative salaries are still probably going to be in the $45 million dollars the budget commitee has to come up with.

I know that it\’s unpopular to say you support closing schools, but if we don\’t close schools that\’s 200 teaching positions (on top of whatever cuts the budget committee feels they have to make in teaching staff). And I think the teachers are more important than the name on the building.

Pretending we can \”save austin\’s schools\” is as much fairy dust and puppies*. We can\’t bake sale our way out of this. The district needs a tourniquet, not a band-aid. I support solving the problem by raising taxes at the state level, but that\’s rainbows and kittens with the current legislature.

I have my finger crossed for the $55 million number. I\’m hoping we get out of this only closing 9 schools and with class sizes under 30. I\’m hoping we get to keep art and music. Only time will tell.

* rainbow/kittens phraseology courtesy of @mdahmus

Interest Rates

Just a quick question. I know there’s an adage that you don’t raise interest rates in a recession. Of course I don’t know of any recession in the past where interest rates were essentially zero.

My theory is that raising interest rates would cause both business and consumers to buy so that they could lock in today’s rates. I think the main reason we’re not recovering is that there’s no reason for businesses or consumers to “buy now”. If the fed started raising rates people would want to re-fi. They’d want to buy a new car. Any large purchase they’d been putting off they’d potentially make to avoid having to spend more in the future. Obviously you can’t raise rates forever, but we know an economy can run just fine with interest rates in the middle single digits so why not try?

What’s the flaw in my logic?